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Give North Korea All the Prestige It Wants

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In Dorothy L. Sayers’s short story “Talboys,” the noble sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey at one point gives his young son Bredon an important lesson about adult behavior. “I’ll tell you a secret, Bredon,” he says. “Grown-up people don’t always know everything, though they try to pretend they do. That is called ‘prestige,’ and is responsible for most of the wars that devastate the continent of Europe.”

I thought of that passage when I heard about U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to accept North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s invitation to a summit meeting. Like the “grown-up people” in Sayers’s story, Trump and Kim are both leaders who try to pretend they know everything. Moreover, the petty war of insults between “Little Rocket Man” and the “dotard” might have led to a war that devastated not the continent of Europe but the Korean Peninsula. In addition to the tangible conflicts of interest dividing the two states, issues of status, prestige, and ego are clearly involved as well.

For the United States, the central issue is North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability and its missile development program, which if continued will eventually enable it to hit the continental United States (though why it would choose to do so remains a mystery, given the consequences of U.S. retaliation). And for all his earlier bluster and saber-rattling, Trump seems to have realized — for now — that the existing military options are unattractive and that diplomacy is the only realistic path.

For North Korea, however, a key element in the dispute is its desire for recognition and prestige. In addition to wanting a reliable deterrent against a U.S. attack, North Korea would like the mighty United States to treat it not as a pariah but as something of an equal. Having diplomatic relations with Canada or Laos is one thing for Pyongyang; getting some respect from Washington is something else entirely.

This is why some of Trump’s critics are already accusing him of once again practicing the “art of the giveaway.” By accepting Kim’s invitation without any prior discussion and without any clear commitments on North Korea’s part, Trump has already given Kim what North Korea’s leaders have long wanted: the chance to meet and bargain face-to-face with the president of the world’s most powerful country. Suddenly, “Little Rocket Man” is enjoying the prospect of a summit meeting with Trump that will command the attention of the entire world, ahead of dozens of world leaders........

© Foreign Policy