Go Ahead. Talk to Kim.

Donald Trump is the first sitting American president who has ever agreed to negotiate with the North Korean dictatorship. His predecessors were right to refuse, but Trump should go ahead anyway. Sit down. Talk to Kim Jong Un. (Just please don’t do it in his capital, Pyongyang.) As Winston Churchill put it, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war,” and we’ve been lurching toward war now for a while.

There’s plenty of skepticism and even outright opposition, of course. “While Americans (and South Koreans) often view engagement as a tool of conflict resolution,” American Enterprise scholar Michael Rubin writes, “North Korea’s regime and its Chinese sponsors see diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy with which to tie opponents’ hands while they seize strategic advantage.”

North Korea’s pattern, write the editors at National Review, “has been to buy time and get relief from sanctions, while continuing to pursue its core strategic goal of developing nuclear weapons and an advanced missile capability.”

North Korea wants to be “bought off,” says Daniel Russel, who until last year was the chief diplomat for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department. He’s looking for “a rental deal where [the Americans] basically pay off North Korea month to month, week to week, to tamp down its misbehavior.”

Axios lays out the diplomatic history between North Korea and the United States and points out that all previous seven attempts failed, each time because Pyongyang refused to honor agreements.  

All true. Which makes another round of talks with the world’s most bellicose, repressive and dishonest regime sound like a terrible idea. It is, but it raises the question: compared to what?

Last year, a retired US admiral warned that the odds of a nuclear war with North Korea were “only” 10 percent while the odds of a conventional war in his view were 50 percent. Just last month we learned that the Trump administration has been mulling the idea of a limited “bloody nose” strike against the North that could easily be the first shot in a total war. Even a non-nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula could kill hundreds of thousands of people and possibly millions.

For decades now, the wardens of Pyongyang have clamored for a meeting with an American president. It’s partly a matter of ego and image. They’ve wanted to be treated not as equals, necessarily, but at least as heads of state like every other world leader is. Denying them this has been entirely justified. No tyrant on earth has ruled with such pitiless cruelty since Soviet premier Josef Stalin. Unlike Stalin, though, no North Korean ruler has made the hermit kingdom powerful enough that it could not be ignored—at least not until now.

If Donald Trump randomly woke up one morning and decided to meet with Kim Jong Un for no particular reason, the naysayers would be right. It would appear recklessly naïve and foolish, and it would come across as mind-bogglingly weak. Why give Kim what he and his family have always wanted if he’s done nothing at all to deserve it?

Likewise, if Trump decided to meet with ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Al Qaeda’s terrorist-in-chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, he’d be out of his mind. Those two need to be zotted with Predator drones or captured and dumped into the ocean. They certainly don’t deserve recognition, and elevating them to the same plane as a head of state would puff them up to gigantic proportions. It would be a huge propaganda boon that could boost their recruitment by an order of magnitude.

The Kim family is responsible for far more human misery than even the worst terrorist organizations, but his regime’s propaganda is entirely useless outside his hermetically sealed borders, and unlike Al Qaeda and ISIS, North Korea, alas, is an actual state. Refusing to recognize it and them has no more effect on reality than Syria’s refusal to recognize Israel, and meeting Kim face-to-face is no more an endorsement of his government’s crimes than Richard Nixon meeting Mao Zedong was an endorsement of Communist China’s.

Meeting and therefore “recognizing” Kim will cost the United States nothing. Even so, there’s no good reason to get excited about this. Diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake is hardly more effective than spinning tires in mud. And the chances that Kim will agree to dismantle his nuclear program is vanishingly small. Even if he does, he’ll almost certainly cheat like his father and grandfather before him.

It’s slightly more likely that he’ll agree to freeze his weapons program in place, at least for a while, and as long as we pay into his protection racket. He’ll still probably cheat, though.

Our best bet is pressuring Kim to accept a peace treaty and finally end this. Because technically, the Korean War never ended. It only paused in 1953 with a decades-long cease-fire.

Kim isn’t an apocalypse nut who wants to burn down the world, nor does he have a martyrdom complex. He’s a young man who wants to revel in his time and rule over his kingdom until he dies in his bed at 90. And he wants a nuclear arsenal for the same reason every other country wants one—as a deterrent.

He already has a deterrent, though. The thousands of artillery pieces pointing at Seoul, which alone could inflict millions of casualties before anybody could stop him, prevent even a mad army from attempting to invade. Kim simply doesn’t understand that or doesn’t believe it. A peace treaty negotiated in good faith would do a lot to settle his nerves and allow us to live in mutual loathing of each other without perpetually fretting about a nuclear holocaust.

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