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Trump’s Pyongyang Moment

A summit in North Korea could offer the president a solution to the current crisis—really.

Illustration by Martin Elfman

On July 15, 1971, Richard Nixon made the stunning announcement that he would be the first U.S. president to visit Mao Zedong’s China. “There can be no stable and enduring peace without the participation of the People’s Republic of China,” Nixon said. The fact that Nixon had made battling communism a hallmark of his political career up to that point made the news all the more shocking. But the summit, which took place six months later, altered history. It upended the balance of power in Asia and laid the groundwork for decades of friendship—or at least begrudging respect—between China and the United States. And it guaranteed that China, the world’s only major Communist power besides the Soviet Union, would tilt closer to Washington than to Moscow.

Far from considering Nixon a political hypocrite or a pushover, Americans cheered his diplomatic coup. Nixon’s approval rating jumped from 49 percent in January 1972 to 56 percent after his return from China a month later. The trip, and the positive publicity it generated, allowed Nixon a brief respite before Watergate overwhelmed him.

The comparison between the distrustful, erudite Nixon and the megalomaniacal, reckless Donald Trump is imperfect, as is one between Beijing in the 1970s and Pyongyang today. North Korea is a small nation of 25 million people. China was a latent world power. “You put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system,” Nixon told his ambassador to China in 1971, “and they will be the leaders of the world.” And yet, Nixon’s trip offers a helpful precedent for Trump, a president who needs both a solution to the crisis with North Korea and a foreign policy win to distract from his own mounting scandals at home.

Nearly 50 years after Nixon went to China, Trump should consider a presidential summit between himself and Kim Jong Un. The idea might seem preposterous—and not only because of the current tensions between the United States and North Korea. Trump, with his verbal outbursts, his naïveté in international affairs, and his susceptibility to the sophistries he hears from his advisers and cable TV pundits, seems uniquely unsuited to solving the North Korean crisis. But before it was announced, Nixon’s visit to China seemed equally unlikely.

A summit would be the best, most realistic outcome to the current tensions. It would allow the United States to assuage Pyongyang’s fear of invasion and regime change, in exchange for something meaningful in return, perhaps a freeze on missile testing. More importantly, it would increase trust between the two nations.

The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” with North Korea—the closest U.S. policymaking has ever come to the Taoist ideal of inaction—arose because all options for curtailing that country’s weapons programs are bad, and have been at least since its first nuclear test in 2006. “It’s time to accept the obvious,” Andrei Lankov, a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, wrote in 2013, after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test. “In spite of all efforts to halt or slow down the process, North Korea will become a successfully nuclearized state.” Today, North Korea possesses at least a dozen nuclear weapons and perhaps as many as 60.

Is it ideal to accept that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons? No. But attempting to restrain it through force risks a catastrophic war—one which could see Pyongyang launching nuclear missiles at the United States and the death of millions of people on the Korean peninsula, including thousands of U.S. troops and civilians. A summit with North Korea would have to culminate in an exceptionally lousy deal to be worse than courting such a conflict.

How would a summit happen? Serious preparations would likely begin with a meeting of cabinet-level officials, followed by months of clandestine talks between the two sides. That initial visit could be secret, like the trip Henry Kissinger took to Beijing in July 1971 as Nixon’s national security advisor. Or perhaps it would mirror October 2000, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il dispatched his top general, Jo Myong Rok, to meet Bill Clinton in the White House. Later that month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first U.S. cabinet member to visit North Korea and meet with Kim.

Despite the chaos Trump and Rex Tillerson have imposed on the State Department, a similar approach is still possible today. Trump’s most respected cabinet member, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, could play the role of Nixon’s Kissinger—or of Kim’s Jo Myong Rok: the stern military man sent to deliver a message. “North Koreans won’t mind dealing with someone who is tough—indeed, they prefer such an interlocutor over someone they see as a patsy, as long as they are fair and willing to listen,” Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, and a longtime North Korea–watcher, wrote in September, in an article suggesting that Trump send Mattis to Pyongyang.

Clinton nearly visited Pyongyang as president. Albright, in her 2003 memoir, recounted that she and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger both encouraged him to go. But by late 2000, Clinton decided to focus his remaining foreign policy efforts on peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Then, in 2002, George W. Bush called Kim Jong Il a “pygmy” and included North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, in his “Axis of Evil.” Hard to stitch together a summit from such diplomatic cloth.

Trump has been even less temperate than Bush. He has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and called Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man.” (Kim, for his part, called Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”) But Trump, in his guise as the unpredictable deal-maker, has also signaled that he’s open to a meeting. During the campaign, Trump said he would “absolutely” speak with Kim. “Who the hell cares?” he asked. “There’s a 10 percent or a 20 percent chance that I can talk him out of those damn nukes.” In May, he called Kim a “pretty smart cookie” and said that, “under the right circumstances,” he “would be honored” to meet him. And during his trip to Tokyo in early November, Trump reiterated that, although it’s “far too early,” he “would certainly be open” to meeting Kim.

North Korea has hosted world leaders before: the prime minister of Japan, the president of South Korea, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and several generations of Chinese leaders. Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang in 1994, and Bill Clinton did so in 2009, to free two American journalists. If Trump, or his team, disliked the optics or security arrangements of a presidential visit to North Korea, the two sides could meet in a third country, as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev did in 1986 when they held a summit in Iceland. A meeting does not require mutual respect or trust, just an understanding that it benefits both sides to talk. Nixon was engaging with China, he told his ambassador in 1971, “not because we love them, but because they’re there.”

Would the North Koreans accept a meeting? Under the right circumstances, certainly. North Korea’s leaders have maintained their grip on power in part by depicting the United States as their sworn enemy. But like Trump, they create their own truth. Kim could easily portray a deal with Trump as a great victory, just as Trump could boast to the American people that solving the North Korea crisis proves he is the greatest negotiator in history.

“These people are both fanatic and pragmatic,” Kissinger wrote of China in a 1972 memo to Nixon. “They are tough ideologues who totally disagree with us on where the world is going, or should be going. At the same time, they are hard realists who calculate they need us.” That combination of fanaticism and pragmatism is just as true of North Korea today.