The announcement Thursday night that the president of the United States had accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un shocked the world.
That is the kind of phrase that is overused — in politics and sports, in particular — but it’s appropriate in this case.
“This is quite extraordinary,” former U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly on All Things Considered on Thursday night. Hill represented the U.S. in multilateral talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration.
Extraordinary because no other sitting U.S. president has met with a North Korean leader. (Jimmy Carter met with then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1994 as a former president, and former President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea and met with Kim Jong Il in 2009 to negotiate the release of two journalists.)
Extraordinary because the rhetoric between the countries has been heated in recent months with Trump referring to Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and a “madman,” and Kim referring to Trump as a “lunatic” and “loser.”
Extraordinary because few thought this realistically could happen. Trump has said in the past that he would be open to meeting with Kim, but on Tuesday, when asked about the possibility, he was noncommittal. “We’re going to see what happens,” he said.
The surprise nature of the announcement gave the impression of an ad hoc gambit rather than a careful, well-thought-out approach to dealing with an unpredictable nuclear regime.
In diplomacy, it comes with incredible risk to subject a principal to a one-on-one meeting where results aren’t guaranteed — or at least close. Typically, spade work is done by lower-level experts for months, if not years.
Trump is banking on the power of his personality for a breakthrough. But some recent domestic examples provide little evidence Trump will deal with this particularly thorny issue masterfully.