For 70 years, North Korea's Kim dynasty has tried to develop a military deterrent capable of fending off foreign invasion. The goal was always to legitimize its rule in the eyes of the world and to reunify the Korean peninsula on its terms. And for the past 30 years, the U.S. has tried to contain the Hermit Kingdom and stymie the potential for a nuclear breakout. Now, it seems North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has decided to try a new approach, and President Trump has decided to play along.
On Thursday, South Korea's national security adviser announced Kim is eager to meet with Trump and talk denuclearization. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump will accept the invitation, and the two would meet in the coming months.
What could possibly go awry? Here's what to watch for in the coming weeks and months as this story develops and the meeting details solidify — or deteriorate completely:
1. Will there be tit for tat?
After accepting the offer to meet, the U.S. has made it clear that its harsh sanctions against North Korea (which do seem to be having an effect) will remain in place until an agreement on denuclearization is reached. Does North Korea expect relief from sanctions in return for its agreement not to test its weapons while these peace-y games are being played? It has also agreed to tolerate America's combined military exercises with South Korea. If the U.S. does not respond in kind, will the North withdraw its offer?
2. What's the timeline?
How quickly do the talks happen? North Korea says they will happen in May, after the president of South Korea meets with Kim in the demilitarized zone. But that timetable seems awfully audacious; Trump might want to meet tomorrow, but he will face bureaucratic resistance to meeting anytime soon. My bet is that this meeting will happen later, rather than sooner.
3. What about the nukes?
What type of denuclearization is the U.S. willing to accept? What type should the U.S. be willing to accept? The U.S. intelligence community does not know whether Kim's nuclear engineers have mastered the complicated ballistic missile re-entry and targeting process, and there remains doubt about whether the North Koreans can build a warhead small enough to fit on the head of a missile. Is this where the hard line will be drawn? Can a country denuclearize without getting rid of its existing stockpile of nuclear material?
4. How will South Korea react?
Will South Korea insist on nuclear artillery disarmament first, as a precondition to talks about true open trade and even reunification? Because the threat to the U.S. comes from intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the threat to South Korea comes from conventional arms (and nuclear shells), will the U.S. and South Korea come to an agreement about what type of nuclear disarmament should happen first?
5. Is Trump's team behind him?
Does the prevailing view within the Pentagon and State Department — that talks about talks need to happen before the two sides can actually sit down — reassert itself? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was caught off guard by the announcement, insisting Thursday that talks were far off. Trump had previously chastised him for bringing up the option of diplomacy with North Korea, so I can understand why he was gun-shy. It's hard to imagine that his humiliation at being completely subverted (albeit back to his own preferred policy) by the president will not result in some institutional pushback.
6. What are the political consequences for Trump?
Does this help Trump politically? The same guy who taunted Kim, who said he'd probably never talk to the guy, who heaped on preconditions that Kim could never accept, has just changed his mind, for the sake of winning the moment. And hey — it is a good thing that two leaders sit down and talk to each other, even without a roadmap. It will reduce tension. It will reduce the possibility of a nuclear accident and a misunderstanding. It will give South Koreans hope and reduce anxiety in Japan. The instinct to sit down with Kim, wherever it came from, is probably the right one. Trump is deeply unpopular and his party is suffering. If he gets to play peacemaker for a few months, or stretches it out until the midterms, he might win back some skeptics in the ranks.