U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a ceremony before signing proclamations on adjusting imports of steel and aluminum into the United States in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)  

Trump Must Tread Carefully With North Korea's Kim Jong Un

(Bloomberg View) -- Donald Trump’s decision to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in character. The U.S. president loves outlandish plot twists that confound critics and supporters alike.

Agreeing to this meeting was questionable. It’s something previous presidents have refused to do, and with reason: It’s a concession that demanded something valuable from the other side. Trump has not secured that, and he appears to have acted impulsively. This isn’t encouraging -- but the decision has been made and what matters now is to make the best of it.

That will require Trump to be less like Trump.

His administration deserves credit for marshaling a stringent global sanctions regime that’s taking a real toll on North Korea. His intemperate threats have pushed Chinese leaders into adopting harsher sanctions than they might otherwise have done. Yet Kim also has reason to feel emboldened: He’s won a face-to-face meeting with a sitting U.S. president -- a coup neither his father nor grandfather achieved -- without committing to much beyond a pause in nuclear and missile tests. Trump, impressed to a fault with his own accomplishments, shouldn’t assume his adversary has been cowed.

The president would also be wise to tamp down his inexplicable confidence that he possesses singular deal-making abilities. Leave aside the fact that Trump’s attempts to strike convention-defying bargains over trade, guns, immigration, Middle East peace and so on have all come to naught. The fact is that North Korea is a devilishly complicated problem that can’t be solved with bold, camera-ready gestures.

Trump quickly needs to shed his suspicion of experts and, so far as possible, his refusal to study and prepare. The sidelining of State Department diplomats appears to have left the administration scrambling to craft a negotiating strategy.

This needn’t be fatal: The 2005 Agreed Framework offered North Korea exactly what it claims to want -- normalization and security guarantees in exchange for ending its nuclear program -- and should be a starting point for discussions. Plenty of plans and experts both inside and outside the government are available. The administration should at a minimum assign a point person to organize them into a coherent framework ahead of the summit.

What should be the goal? The chances of talking Kim out of his nukes -- at a cost the U.S. should be willing to pay -- remain slim to nonexistent. The U.S. alliance with South Korea must be nonnegotiable. In the near term, the best the U.S. can hope for is a complete and verifiable freeze on the North’s nuclear and missile programs, with a promise to continue talking about full denuclearization. Trump should go into negotiations knowing this, and understanding from now on the value of each concession so as not to overpay.

The U.S. president will also need to coordinate closely with nations he’s irked to one degree or another -- specifically, North Korea’s neighbors China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. Their own interests will have to be taken into account for any deal to be sustainable. A multilateral framework is more likely to produce a lasting deal than bilateral talks.

Kim runs a nation that’s diplomatically isolated, economically ruined, militarily weaker than the U.S., and, over the long term, threatened by exposure to the outside world. Even so, Trump shouldn’t underestimate the 34-year-old he’s called “Little Rocket Man.” Kim has consolidated power, overseen dramatic advances in the North’s weapons programs, and brought the U.S. to deal with him on his terms. Trump would be foolish to treat him lightly.

--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Clive Crook.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.