Only seven months have passed since Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. He has now agreed to become the first US president in history to meet the nuclear-armed necrocracy’s leader (though Kim Jong-un is the “supreme leader”, he is surpassed by his late grandfather Kim Il-sung, the “eternal president”).
The surprise is that we should be surprised: Trump is a maverick, narcissistic leader, unbound by conventional ideology or diplomacy. The attraction to him of a “Nixon in China moment” is obvious. Where Barack Obama failed, he could succeed.
The White House is framing the announcement as a victory for Trump’s “maximum pressure”; punitive sanctions will not be rescinded until North Korea disarms in practice, rather than merely in theory. The President, a senior official said, “is not prepared to reward North Korea in exchange for for talks”.
But the agreement to talks is, in itself, a reward. North Korea is close to achieving what it has long craved: a meeting with the US on equal terms. Far from being crazed, the Stalinist state’s nuclear programme has long rested on rational foundations. The fearsome project grants the isolated country diplomatic leverage. For Kim, the lesson of the fall of Saddam and Gaddafi is that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The threats from the US have strengthened the regime by reinforcing a siege mentality.
North Korea will not now turn swords into ploughshares without a security guarantee and the softening or abolition of sanctions. Indeed, it may have no intention of doing so at all. By forcing the US to address it as an equal, on the eve of its 70th anniversary, North Korea has already achieved a remarkable victory. For Trump, however, who has gambled and lost many times before, the cost of failure would be high indeed.