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What's bringing Kim Jong Un to the table
02:27 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and Levermore Research Fellow at Adelphi University. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

CNN  — 

The world learned on Tuesday that earlier this month, CIA Director Mike Pompeo was in Pyongyang, meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.

This was the highest-level meeting between the United States and North Korea in almost 20 years and precedes by weeks the first-ever meeting between an American president and a North Korean dictator.

The historic nature of the summit means that every detail will be closely watched both by professionals and by the hundreds of millions of people concerned about the resumption of hostilities in the Korean War – which President Trump seems to have only recently learned never officially ended.

Pompeo is hardly America’s best or brightest – and his nomination for secretary of state is likely to be opposed by the majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which would be highly unusual but would not necessarily prevent the ratification of his nomination.

Pompeo is perhaps most famous both for his clearly offensive words about Islam and for his deference to and good relationship with Trump. But his views on North Korea are not as extreme as those of national security adviser John Bolton.

In his recent Senate hearings, which we now know took place after he met Kim, Pompeo was clear that he does not support “regime change” in North Korea and that, “no one is under any illusions that we will reach a comprehensive agreement through the president’s meeting.”

US Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his conformation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2018.  / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Sources: Pompeo secretly met with Kim Jong Un
00:54 - Source: CNN

Those are good signs, as Trump’s desire for a major achievement right away could prove disastrous. Pompeo did say he could “hypothesize” a situation in which a US ground invasion of North Korea was necessary, though he did acknowledge that it would be “catastrophic,” and, frankly, anyone could “hypothesize” such a situation in a range of unfathomable scenarios.

Pompeo would not be my choice for secretary of state, but by Trumpian standards he is a Very Serious Person.

The world should be pleased that the meeting between Pompeo and Kim took place.

It should equally be pleased that National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Matt Pottinger appears to be closely involved in the summit planning. That there are ongoing lower-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang and high-level talks between Washington and Seoul, should also make us breathe and sleep a little easier.

But not too easily.

All of this preparation is totally normal and would hardly be worth mentioning in a Clinton, Cruz, or Rubio administration. Yet the unfortunate reality of the Trump era is that prep work by Pompeo is better than prep work by Jared Kushner, and Pottinger is good by any standard (pray Bolton keeps him around).

But in the case of the Trump administration it is reassuring that the summit is being taken seriously enough to warrant serious planning, that Trump doesn’t assume he can do it on his own, and that every effort is being made to make sure that Trump is well-prepared— or, ideally, that the heavy lifting is all done in advance (as it often is at Presidential summits) and Trump need only stick to the script.

The bad news is that listening to people and sticking to the script are hardly Trump’s strengths.

And all the preparation in the world will be meaningless if Trump decides to spontaneously agree to a North Korean proposal. If Kim Jong Un decides to play to Trump’s ego and say, “Only Trump could bring me to the table,” and offer to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for an American withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula, which is what Kim means by “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Trump could see that as a big victory.

Conversely, if talks fail or if Trump feels slighted in some way, new national security adviser John Bolton could use it as an excuse to push for the war he favored only weeks ago.

The Trump-Kim summit will be an extraordinarily tricky and risky act of diplomacy— the only thing riskier may be not holding it at all.