The best way of thinking about Donald Trump’s astounding – but none the less characteristic – North Korean gambit is to imagine the optimal outcome. The country denuclearises; the regime liberalises. The initiative is remembered as the President’s Nixon-to-China moment, only more so. And “the old lunatic” (as Kim Jong Un has called Trump) and “the wack job” (as Trump has called Kim Jong Un) line up together to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
This is extraordinarily unlikely, but not beyond imagination. If Trump loses office, he waddles offstage towards oodles of money, his memoirs, and a blitz of TV shows, bellowing all the while that the election was fixed. If Jong Un loses power, he is burnt alive by flamethrowers or hurled, Game-Of-Thrones-style, to famished dogs – at least, if he is treated the same way that he has treated others. Maybe the North Korean President thinks he can persuade the fellow members of his claque, who will have no more regard for human life than he has, that they can keep their tyrannical grip on the country amidst such a transformation.
One can also conjure up the worst possible outcome – or a very bad one, certainly. The two governments and men have misread each other. Trump really expects Jong Un to denuclearise. Jong Un has no intention of doing so. Talks between the two countries break down. The North Korean regime resumes testing. Trump loses patience, and the two countries stumble into war, with terrifying consequences for South Korea and the region.
A more probable outcome is somewhere in the middle. North Korea suspends nuclear tests, but does not abandon its nuclear armoury, and the programme quietly continues. Some sanctions are lifted on the country. Jong Un gets what he wants: international recognition, a coming in from the cold, a place in the sun. Trump gets yet more of what he has a taste for: top billing in the TV show of his presidency. China makes approving noises. Russia raises an eyebeow. South Korea gives a collective sigh of relief (and later arms, along with Japan). North Korea remains a totalitarian state.
One reading of events is that Trump’s bombast, military exercises and sanctions have dragged Jong Un to the negotiating table. Another, not inconsistent with it, is that South Korea, desparate for a deal, is wildly exaggerating or misreading the North Korean regime’s messages to it on denuclerisation. Another is that a narcissistic, unstable and attention span-deprived Trump is gambling on the art of the North Korean deal, and will throw his military toys out of the pram if he doesn’t get one.
Another yet is to stand back from the news, concede that there’s much the media can’t know about what’s going on behind the scenes, and ask, as we have before: what else can Trump reasonably be expected to do? Bill Clinton, George W Bush, the sainted Barack Obama, all praise be upon him: all failed with North Korea. The only viable option, according to this take, is a big stick, brandished publicly, and soft talking, undertaken privately, in hope of a breakthrough. Indeed, the President recently signalled an overture, saying in characteristic style that “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea.”
One take on Trump is that behind the flamboyant tweeting is a conventional actor, who knows that jaw tweet jaw is better than war tweet war. Whether or not this is so, one final point is worth making. The hallowed Obama could not have made this approach to Jong Un. A leader of the Right is needed for these things – see Reagan to Russia; Begin to Egypt; De Gaulle to Algeria. Trump used the arts of war in Syria over the use of sarin, and they have worked – so far. His critics should acknowledge this attempt at the arts of peace.