How a Kim and Trump summit could fail—advice from a US diplomat who knows North Korea

A float with effigies of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump is paraded through the crowd during the 134th Carnival…
A float with effigies of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump is paraded through the crowd during the 134th Carnival…
Image: Reuters/Pierre Arnet
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He is likely to “vent,” to be “hostile,” and believes what he says is “sacrosanct.” He is probably willing to hold a tough position for months, expecting the other side to fold. He is especially sensitive to bad press.

Ex-governor Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, energy secretary under president Bill Clinton, and frequent negotiator in North Korea, was describing dictator Kim Jong-un on Thursday (April 19) to a group of diplomats, journalists, and intelligence personnel in Washington, DC. But much of what he said could also apply to US president Donald Trump.

Concerns that the two leaders are a toxic combination is one reason that preparing for the summit, planned for early June, is so tricky.The US’s depleted diplomatic corps in Asia also means the White House is relying on intelligence to do much of the planning.

Richardson warned at the Arms Control Association annual meeting that there’s a chance the summit could leave the world in a worse state than it is now.

The meeting carries a “lot of risks,” he said, and the biggest is that by setting up face-to-face dialogue with the two leaders there’s “going to be no return to the status quo.” Both sides are going to need to get something face-saving out of the meeting—or the volatile leaders could be pushed to extremes.

For the Trump administration right now, “the danger is unrealistic expectations,” Richardson said. Kim and his regime “aren’t going to hand over the keys to the kingdom,” he said.

In particular both sides have different definitions of what denuclearization means.

The White House and Trump may think it means Kim handling over his missile system, but to Kim it likely means the US taking down the “nuclear umbrella,” its agreement to protect South Korea and Japan in case of any attack. Richardson emphasized several times that he supported the idea of the meeting, but was concerned about Trump’s volatility and historical lack of attention to detail.

“I don’t want the president to walk out saying ‘They’re not going to denuclearize this afternoon, so I’m leaving,’ ” he said. Any deal to get rid of North Korea’s weapons is expected to take months or years to fulfill. “I think the risk that he’s taking is the correct one,” Richardson said, but he’s especially concerned about Trump’s use of Twitter and his “flying off the handle.”

Rational US goals for the meeting could include the return of US detainees in North Korea, the return of soldiers’ remains that are still being held from the Korean War, and a ban on North Korea selling chemical weapons to Syria, or nuclear weapons to anyone else, he said.

Concerns among diplomats that new National Security Advisor John Bolton could bomb North Korea are overblown, Richardson added. “Relax,” he said. This meeting is one of Bolton’s first jobs as security advisor, he said, and he’s going to want it to be a success.