Flattery, so the saying goes, will get you everywhere. This is wisdom usually employed by lovers, but Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are trying to see whether it will work in statecraft. The stakes, like the risks, are large.
Mr. Kim sent a birthday greeting to the president, and in return, since he was in the neighborhood, the president dropped in on Mr. Kim and met him for a chat, a chew and a handshake at the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas. The president even accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation to take a few steps over the border to stand on “North Korean soil” (which was actually “North Korean concrete,” since everything at the DMZ is paved).
This was spectacular television, which Mr. Trump, once the host of a popular television show, knows how to stage, and it was spectacular statecraft, about which the pudgy maximum leader once derided by the president as “Rocket Man,” knows something, too.
Two of a kind, you might say, if only for a day. Both men are driven by an enormous ego. President Trump is confident that his salesman’s personality can make a friend of any skeptic, critic or even enemy. “A lot of great triumphs have been based on relationships,” he said Sunday. There’s no reason why Mr. Kim shouldn’t imagine that he, too, can charm anyone. He is accustomed to nothing less than worship from his subjects, and he has left a long trail of bodies of those who failed to properly observe the holy rites of worship. One of those bodies was that of his half-brother.
Whether the bit of theater at the DMZ, as remarkable as it was, will amount to anything but a photo-op beyond the imagination of the president’s public-relations flacks, is something else. Some of those closest to the president, including the secretary of state and his senior national security adviser, are said to be skeptical of the notion that personality can prevail over national interests.
Mr. Trump has demonstrated that he will, as he often boasts, walk away from a bad deal, as he did at his last meeting with Mr. Kim at their summit in Hanoi. He may soon get another opportunity to do it again. There is no sign that Mr. Kim, charmed by the president’s razzle-dazzle diplomacy or not, will give up his nuclear weapons program for anything less than all he wants, beginning with lifting the sanctions that have the North Korean economy by the throat. Mr. Kim wants the sanctions lifted first, and only then to talk about dismantling his nuclear-weapons program. It’s important that neither men blinks first.
The only substantive result from the Trump-Kim meeting on the border, so far as we know, is an agreement to resume the negotiations that were suspended in Hanoi four months ago. Mr. Trump says he is in no hurry, and that’s a good thing, because there may not be anyone for the Americans to negotiate with at the moment. Translators and negotiators are scarce in Pyongyang because Mr. Kim killed some of them for displeasing him by their performance in Hanoi, merely by being there when he was humiliated by Mr. Trump. Mere association with bad news is punishable in North Korea by a hangman.
Mr. Trump no doubt expects that some kind of spectacular triumph abroad would enhance his prospects for a second term, and perhaps it would. But he can expect no thanks from the Democrats, who are determined to use everything short of assassination to get rid of him. We live in mean times.
The president’s diplomacy was not nothing. New North Korean nuclear tests are probably suspended, at least for now. Mr. Kim no doubt thinks he’s got the president’s number, but he wouldn’t take the risk of upsetting the detente, if detente is what it is, by exploding some of his test bombs until he sees what diplomacy can do.
“In his stunning visit,” observe William Tobey, a professor at Harvard who formerly served on the National Security Council, and Judith Miller of the Manhattan Institute, “Trump went out of his way to give the North Korean tyrant what he craves. Trump calls his step across the line into North Korea a ‘special moment’ that attests to the ‘great relationship’ the United States now has with the north.”
But a birthday greeting and a walk of a few steps into the dark place do not make a “great relationship.” What the president has forged — and it’s no small thing — is an acquaintance of convenience with a brutal tyrant. It can be a useful acquaintance as long as the president keeps in mind what it is, not what he wants it to be.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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