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On North Korea, Trump gambles from a position of weakness

A weakened, amateur president agrees to risky talks with a rogue minor power, without a clear strategy or diplomatic team. What could possibly go wrong?
Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda
U.S. President Donald Trump casts shadows on the wall as he walks with Poland's President Andrzej Duda at the end of a joint press conference, in Warsaw,...

It's been quite a journey for Donald Trump on North Korea. The American president announced in May that he'd be "honored" to talk to Kim Jong-un. Five months later, Trump insisted that his own chief diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man." Talking to North Korea, he added, wouldn't work.

And five months after that, the White House acknowledged that the North Korean dictator had invited the American president for direct negotiations -- and that Donald Trump had accepted.

Or put another way, Trump has agreed to give Kim Jong-un exactly what he wants. North Korean leaders have sought this kind of meeting for decades because it would necessarily elevate the rogue state: it would show the world that North Korea's leader is being treated as an equal by the Leader of the Free World. Previous American presidents - from both parties -- have left open the possibility of such engagement, but only as a reward for meaningful and tangible results.

Trump, however, tends to assume his modern predecessors were fools who lacked his awesomeness. Why would this president take the one step other presidents would not? The question practically answers itself: Trump agreed to the talks precisely because other presidents didn't. Politico had a good piece on this overnight, highlighting Trump's "taboo-breaking instinct."

[Last night's announcement] spotlighted an instinct that has defined Trump's early foreign policy: say the things others wouldn't say; do the things they didn't dare."He likes to be the first. He likes doing things no one has ever done before," one senior Trump official said.

It doesn't seem to occur to Trump to ask why others haven't taken such actions. Worse, the president apparently hasn't thought through the scope of the risk he's taking.

Remember, Trump is still an amateur, with no foreign policy vision that couldn't fit on a bumper sticker, who has literally never been a direct participant in delicate diplomatic talks.

It's tempting to assume the president will be briefed extensively by his diplomatic team ahead of the talks, but (1) Trump he has an unfortunate habit of ignoring everything his staff tells him, and (2) what diplomatic team? This White House still doesn't have an ambassador to South Korea; the State Department didn't even know yesterday's news was coming; and Joseph Yun, the administration's experienced point man on North Korea, recently resigned after more than 30 years on the job.

This is not a recipe for success.

Yes, North Korea has reportedly opened the door to de-nuclearization, but the dictatorship has made similar overtures before without following through. Besides, from Kim Jong-un's perspective, the purpose of his nuclear program is working beautifully: it's not only prevented hostile actions from its enemies, it's also bringing the president of the United States directly to the negotiating table.

Trump, in other words, has agreed to reward North Korea in exchange for a vague opportunity.

The Republican will enter the talks from a position of weakness -- he's an unpopular, scandal-plagued president, far too eager for some kind of "win" to brag about -- and as someone with a reputation for saying one thing at the negotiating table, only to do something else soon after.

I'm not opposed to the idea of direct diplomacy with North Korea, but there's nothing to suggest Donald Trump has thought this through in any depth, and the consequences of failures are more than a little frightening.