Why you should care
Because an exchange of “liaison offices” might be all we can expect from this week’s summit.
“We fell in love,” Donald Trump once said of his correspondence with Kim Jong Un. The flattering letters and flag-bedecked summit last year in Singapore have sparked hope for a legacy-building moment — a fruitful peace with a country that has been hostile since the 1950s. That brings us to Summit Part Deux: the president and the chairman, a foe turned friend of the United States with a zooming economy that represents what North Korea could be, huddling in Vietnam.
The least traditional of our 45 presidents is simply acting like most of the men who came before him: turning to foreign affairs, where one has more control when a hostile Congress provides little hope for a domestic agenda. Oh, and that pesky Robert Mueller investigation, reportedly wrapping up in the coming days.
The pace of Trump’s international travel is accelerating this year, with a state visit to London in the works on top of a pledged-but-not-finalized trip to Turkey as well as several multinational summits.
If you’re looking for a concrete outcome of the summit, an exchange of “liaison offices” is your best bet.
The Hanoi trip comes just after the White House announced a semi-reversal on Syria at the behest of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Kurdish allies. The U.S. now will keep 400 troops in Syria as a “peacekeeping group” rather than execute a complete withdrawal of the 2,000 troops that Trump promised in December. In both announcements, the Pentagon was caught unprepared. But that’s how Trump operates, which makes this week another unpredictable one.
For more than a year the North Korean regime has personally praised Trump while slamming the State Department and snubbing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Get Trump mano a mano with Kim, they figure, and they could score a major win.
The foreign policy establishment believes Trump is getting hoodwinked by a country with no intention of dumping its nukes, having already handed Kim a propaganda win by holding a single meeting, much less two. Declaring an end to the Korean War (technically still ongoing after nearly 69 years) would have enormous symbolic resonance for the hermit kingdom — and Trump. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (who knows the way to Trump’s heart as well as anyone) even apparently nominated Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize for his North Korean efforts.
In exchange, the North Koreans have stopped the provocative missile tests that prompted the infamous “fire and fury” rhetoric from Trump. And there will be a discussion this week about dismantling certain nuclear sites.
But if you’re looking for a concrete outcome of the summit, an exchange of “liaison offices” is your best bet, says Michael Madden, an expert on the regime and publisher of the website North Korea Leadership Watch. It would mean more than you think. A goal sought by North Korea since the Clinton administration, having office space in Washington or New York represents “a foot in the door in the United States.” It won’t be a full embassy with recognition, but it would allow North Korean diplomats to meet regularly with State Department personnel and hammer out details on denuclearization and sanctions relief.
About denuclearization? It’s a pipe dream, says Madden, given how well hidden so many of the missile sites are and the nuclear expertise North Korea already has, so it could restart production at any time. The end game, Madden predicts: “North Korea will get rid of 80-85 percent of its inventory and keep a secret cache.” So it’ll be an “undeclared” nuclear power, like Israel.
Nukes can be a powerful security blanket, but they’re not the only option. It just so happens that North Korea is sitting on trillions of dollars’ worth of minerals, including the “rare earths” crucial to smartphone production.
It doesn’t take a mogul turned president to spot a potential business deal there.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Pakistan as an ‘undeclared’ nuclear power.