On Saturday, President Donald Trump continued to congratulate himself over his agreement to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump touted calls with leaders in China and Japan, emphasizing that North Korea has promised not to do any missile tests through the meeting — a promise he believes.
South Korean envoys on Thursday evening made a stunning announcement: that Kim wants to meet with President Trump. What was more surprising was Trump’s response: He immediately accepted the invitation. The summit is expected to take place by May, but the details are still being hammered out.
North Korea has reportedly agreed to halt nuclear and missile testing and has not demanded that the US and South Korea stop their joint military exercises.
Talks between Trump and Kim are certainly a positive development compared to the alternative: potential nuclear war with North Korea. And a temporary freeze is better than nothing. But Trump’s celebration of this most recent development is early — this will be an enormous test of his purported dealmaking ability, and there are no guarantees North Korea will hold up its end of the bargain.
“That Kim has apparently agreed to a testing freeze, and that a continuation of US-South Korea exercises isn’t an obstacle to talks, would have been very hard to imagine only a week ago,” Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, told Vox’s Alex Ward this week. “But Kim no doubt feels that he is in a strong position after three successful intercontinental ballistic missile tests and a high-yield nuclear test.”
Reif added that a Trump-Kim summit is a “bold move” but requires preparation to make sure that this is “the start, and not the end, of a diplomatic process.”
North Korea launched almost two dozen missiles in 2017
Trump is correct that North Korea has not conducted any missile tests since late November, but before this pause, it did a lot. According to a count from CNN, North Korea fired 23 missiles during 16 tests last year.
While tensions between the US and North Korea have calmed in recent weeks, it had gotten pretty scary for a while. Trump for months mocked Kim as “Little Rocket Man.” He has debated whether to launch a preemptive military strike against North Korea and threatened to “totally destroy” the country. Trump and Kim have traded barbs about their “nuclear buttons,” and the US in February announced new and harsh sanctions against North Korea.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pushed to improve relations with North Korea and utilized the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang as an opportunity to do so. The two countries marched under the same flag, and Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, attended the opening ceremonies. A summit between North and South Korea is expected in April.
Trump’s decision to meet with Kim stunned everyone involved, according to a report from Peter Baker and Choe Sang-Hun at the New York Times. He accepted Kim’s invitation from a South Korean envoy on the spot, brushing aside warnings from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser HR McMaster that he proceed with caution. He kept Secretary of State Rex Tillerson out of the loop.
Trump is setting himself up to engage in a precarious high wire act moving forward, and his habit of Twitter diplomacy might make things more complicated. So, too, could the fact that the president is often easy to manipulate, as Vox’s Zach Beauchamp noted earlier this week. When Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year, it took minutes for him to be convinced that China couldn’t do nearly as much as he thought when it came to getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” the president recalled in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. … But it’s not what you would think.”
Trump in a separate tweet on Saturday reacted to the surprise at his agreement to meet with North Korea, including from the media. He said the press was “startled” and “amazed” at the events but now the news about it is “fake.” It is unclear what is fake about it, or who he believes is saying, “So what, who cares!”