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Beware A Korean Reykjavik

Michael Auslin

Security, Asia

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits war graves to pay respects to war dead for the 64th anniversary of the armistice which ended the Korean War, in this undated photo released on July 28, 2017 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang. KCNA/via REUTERS

Trump’s bold gamble is as much a diplomatic breakthrough as it is strategically risky.

The White House is warning against inflated expectations over the proposed summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The surprise announcement that Trump had accepted the invitation from Pyongyang to hold the first-ever summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea stunned everyone from war hawks to peace advocates. Trump’s bold gamble, however, is as much a diplomatic breakthrough as it is strategically risky. Above all, the administration must guard against the summit turning into a Korean Reykjavik, where Trump finds irresistible a dramatic grand bargain to solve the North Korean crisis. Such a move could wind up harming U.S. interests more than continued stalemate.

On the face of it, of course, the North Korean offer seems a victory for Trump’s hard line. Some may even claim that it vindicates his widely derided “mad man” theory of diplomacy. To be sure, the administration’s successful implementation of harsh sanctions appears to have changed the North’s calculus, and reports that it is running low on foreign reserves suggests why Kim may have made his invitation.

Yet anyone who has watched the sad history of U.S. interaction with North Korea knows that Pyongyang always plays a multi-layer game while Washington focuses narrowly on one goal. Pyongyang’s newest gambit may just as easily be a prelude to a further surprise: the unveiling of a tempting grand solution to the Korean peninsula crisis, possibly dropped into the middle of the talks between the two leaders.

It might be hard for Trump to resist such an offer. When Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986, their talks quickly ballooned into a truly historic proposal for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The fact that an agreement faltered on the rocks of Reagan’s cherished Strategic Defense Initiative does not minimize just how close the two sides came to committing themselves to a plan neither had fully thought out.

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