Trump's North Korea Gambit: Why Does Kim Jong Un Want to Talk?

After a year of personal insults and overheated rhetoric about the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, President Donald Trump has decided to sit down and talk with "Rocket Man," as he once derisively called North Korea's Kim Jong Un. On Thursday, Trump accepted an invitation from Kim delivered by two senior South Korean officials who had met with him earlier this week in Pyongyang.

If the meeting occurs—at a yet to be determined location sometime in May, officials say—it would be unprecedented. And Kim will have done something neither his father nor his grandfather ever did: successfully invite a U.S. president to meet. Because Trump has agreed, Kim's personal prestige within—and control over—his isolated country is now at an apex. For a young man whose experience and ability to run his country were widely derided when he took over six years ago, that is no small thing.

For Trump, there's no immediate downside to a prospective meeting. His schoolyard rhetoric about the North has been the butt of jokes (when it wasn't inducing heart attacks among those inclined to take his rhetoric seriously). But the administration has always said it would talk directly to the North if the conditions were right. And that meant "denuclearization" had to be part of the discussion.

Related: What would war with North Korea look like?

For months, Kim had insisted he would never be willing to talk about giving up his nukes. He'd also been testing their missile delivery systems frequently. But suddenly he was ready to meet the Trump team's conditions. The president's surrogates immediately boasted that their "maximum pressure"—increased economic sanctions and threats of military action—was working.

Maybe that's true, though there are reports of a decline in trade between North Korea and China, a critical economic lifeline for Pyongyang, which may be far more important. Ultimately, knowing why any North Korean leader makes the decisions he does is nearly impossible since the regime, in the worlds of former CIA analyst Jung Pak, is "the hardest of hard targets."

Donald Trump Kim Jong Un
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are set to meet sometime in May at a yet to be determined location. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque, KCNA/Handout

Twice in the past, of course, North Korea has temporarily abandoned belligerence for negotiation. In 1994, when Bill Clinton was in the White House, the so-called "Agreed Framework" with the U.S. and its allies was supposed to shut down the North's nuclear program. Years later, during George W. Bush's presidency, Pyongyang participated in a lengthy series of negotiations known as the Six-Party Talks. The North ultimately signed an agreement to get rid of its nukes, but it ended up ignoring the deal.

So Trump's advisers, between now and the summit, will no doubt be reminding him of the Charlie Brown-like quality of dealing with the North: Lucy always snatches the football away just as Charlie's about to kick it.

Read more: North Korea Up Close: From the Bright Lights of Pyongyang to the Impoverished Countryside

Is there a potential risk to a summit meeting? That's going to depend on what Trump agrees to, what if anything he gets and how he reacts. North Korea's overall goals haven't changed: It seeks a peace treaty and normalization of relations with Washington, and in return for that and denuclearization, it wants all U.S. troops out of South Korea. During his presidential campaign, while criticizing South Korea's large trade surplus with the United States, Trump wondered aloud what Washington was doing defending Seoul anyway. Pyongyang loved hearing that, and Kim will no doubt try to pull on Trump's isolationist heartstrings at their meeting.

South Korea President Moon Jae-in will meet with Kim at his own summit in late April, just before Trump and Kim convene, and the U.S. and Seoul will obviously need to coordinate their negotiating strategies between now and then. In the meantime, H.R. McMaster, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, the national security adviser and the secretaries of defense and state, respectively, will be stressing that there can be no discussion of any troop withdrawals unless the North disarms its nukes, and does so in a way that can be exhaustively verified by international inspectors.

Would Kim agree to that? There's obviously no harm in testing the proposition, but most North Korea watchers are extremely skeptical. Many have come to believe that Pyongyang sees its nuclear program as its ultimate security blanket. The more important question might be: How would Trump react to a summit failure? As North Korea analyst Sue Mi Terry at the Center of Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, writes, "If the talks fail and there is no agreement of any sort, a big risk is that the White House, having tried negotiation, could come away from the meeting further convinced that it should resolve the nuclear issue by kinetic means."

That means Trump's key advisers also need to persuade the president that a robust policy of containment and deterrence can minimize the threat from Pyongyang, should the sudden optimism fade away. When it comes to North Korea, it often does.