Editorial: Trump is taking a smart calculated risk with North Korea talks

In July 1971, President Richard Nixon jolted the international status quo — and set diplomatic nerves worldwide fluttering — by announcing he would visit China. “Never in history, to our knowledge, have diplomatic relations progressed so fast from the Ping-Pong table to the Presidency,” this page breathlessly observed.

Nixon’s bold overture reshaped the modern world and has paid vast dividends to Washington, to Beijing and to the general stability of global geopolitics.

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Now another potentially seismic diplomatic event takes shape: President Donald Trump plans to clink glasses with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Yes, the same dictator Trump taunted on Twitter as “Little Rocket Man.” Trump hopes to strike a deal with the North Korean leader to relinquish his nuclear weapons arsenal.

What could go wrong? Just about everything, critics say. Skeptics carp that Kim wins a huge propaganda bonanza just by sitting down with the West’s leader without first promising concessions in return.

But Trump is taking a smart calculated risk.

The main reason is that Trump doesn’t have any better options to resolve this conundrum without military action. Several decades of patient American diplomacy, from the Clinton administration in the 1990s through those of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, failed to achieve the key goal: to prevent North Korea from threatening the U.S. and the world with nuclear weapons. Kim now has up to 60, and he is intent on building more. He also has ballistic missiles that could hit U.S. cities, including Chicago, with a nuclear payload.

The Trump-Kim summit is tentatively planned for late May or June in a location to be determined. Meanwhile, Trump is cleverly lowering expectations — here and in Pyongyang — about what, if anything, the meeting may yield. “If I think that it’s a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we’re not going to go,” he said. “If the meeting, when I’m there is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting.”

Translation for Kim: Don’t bring empty promises. The U.S. has been there and done that with your predecessors.

Should the two hit it off, Trump has plenty to offer Kim in return for surrendering nukes. One bargaining chip is a final peace treaty with South Korea, which is also reportedly on the agenda of upcoming talks between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Americans may be surprised to learn that the Korean War technically isn’t over. Combat ended with an armistice signed in 1953. But negotiations over a peace treaty stalled.

A treaty now could eventually bring normal relations and allow Pyongyang to escape Western sanctions. But will Kim pay the price? Or does he merely seek to upstage the master showman and keep building nukes? The hermetically sealed Hermit Kingdom is mysterious: Outsiders don’t know its arcane internal politics.

Could Trump dazzle the world with a foreign relations master stroke? Sure. Nixon went to China and returned triumphant. Not because he delivered a big deal, but because he started a diplomatic process that eventually opened China to the world.

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True, Trump is no savvy foreign relations pro like Nixon. He’s a deal-maker, blusterer and serial mind-changer. His diplomatic maneuvering is as subtle as a body slam.

This matchup could yield nothing more than bombast and political theater. But we hope to write a post-summit headline like the one that appeared on this page after Nixon finished his 1972 visit: “Yes, It Was Worth It.”