The Trump–Kim Jong Un Summit: Should It Be Postponed?

Missiles are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang

Modern summits take months to prepare for. Both parties can afford to slow down the current breakneck pace of unprepared negotiations to make sure they get this right.

The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un is scheduled to begin in just three weeks. Yet there is growing confusion and uncertainty about the shape of the summit, the topics to be discussed, the meaning of ‘denuclearization’ and even whether it will take place. Reporting on the run-up to the summit is unnerving, depicting chaos in the Trump administration—including a startlingly late realization that the North Koreans have no intention of denuclearizing.

Increasingly, it looks as if South Korean President Moon oversold the prospect of a North Korean summit to Trump. Ever susceptible to flattery and not actually doing any real preparation himself, Trump fell for the off-hand comment about a Nobel peace prize. Media coverage that actually took the idea that Trump might deserve a Nobel seriously fueled sky-high expectations. These are now coming down to earth amid a wave of North Korean backtracking.

This week’s North Korean outbursts have thrown the summit into doubt. With just three weeks to go, far too much is uncertain. The possibility of disaster, while low, is far higher than in a normal; and the stake are far too high for such risks. The wise thing to do now would be to either postpone this until proper staff work can hammer out some minimal consensus, or have the summit but at a lower level. There is growing expert commentary to suggest this track, mostly out of anxiety that this is all too rushed and thrown together, which creates far more room than is wise for misperception, mistakes, gaffes and so on.

As I have argued before in the National Interest, cancelling or delaying the summit would be prudent, mostly because of anxiety that Trump himself is not ready for this. I continue to be worried that the president’s ‘unique’ character makes this summit far riskier than a normal meeting of this kind. If Trump walks out, for example, as he has threatened, or if he uses profanity or racial insult, the summit could make things worse. That Trump has admitted that he is not preparing for the summit and does not feel he needs to is even more unnerving. Trump knows little about Korea, nuclear weapons, missile technology or U.S. force deployments in East Asia. This creates the possibility that Trump may trade away something valuable without knowing what he has done, much as he regrettably gave a summit meeting to the North Koreans for nothing—a huge missed opportunity to extract a concession from Pyongyang.

At this point though, it is probably too late to cancel. The summit may still fall through of its own accord. But were the White House to cancel unilaterally, or were either Korean party to start suggesting that, it would likely be read as a major snub by the other two parties. The cancellation itself, at this late date, would send unnerving signals. It might not be wise at this point.