Everybody who went to a stereotypical American high school or has even just seen “Gossip Girl” knows that high schools have cliques. If you walk into the cafeteria, a quick scan of seating arrangements reveals these exclusive groups: The jocks sit in the corner booth, the theater kids sit with each other, as do the nerds and the band kids take their food to go eat in the band room. Nevertheless, every year there is one kid who shocks the world and moves from the nerd table to the jock table by either hitting the gym all summer or somehow getting a girl who sits at that table (Hey Dan). The state of world politics is not entirely different — there are small exclusive tables where decisions are made that impact the whole world, such as the U.N. Security Council, the Group of Seven and Group of 20 summits. However, how do countries get spots in these exclusive groups? How can the nerd (North Korea) get at the same table as the jocks (the U.S. and China)?
In the past, nations have developed their geopolitical prestige in one of two ways: the economy or the military. Some nations, such as China, became international powers by rapidly developing their economy and becoming trade partners with other superpowers, such as the United States. In fact, it was not until recently that China started to really build up its military. Similarly, Germany became one of the most important, if not the most important, players in Europe by becoming an economic powerhouse. At the same time, Germany became extremely demilitarized after World War II, and its new constitution held that Germany’s military would only be a defense mechanism. On the other hand, Kim Jong-un and North Korea have made another bet altogether. They believe that the path to the cool kids’ table goes through a nuclear weapons program.
On numerous occasions in the past, Kim has made public statements that basically make the argument that if North Korea does not have nuclear weapons, it will never be taken seriously as a geopolitical actor. In fact, a member of then-President Barack Obama’s National Security Council said as much: “If you were the head of a small, isolated, poor country surrounded by potentially hostile military powers, you’d be looking for some way to ensure your own destiny, too.” Basically, if you were a nerd that didn’t want to be picked on any longer, you would hit the gym too.
This past week Kim began his foray into the jock’s ground by meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Kim has already used the meeting as propaganda for the usefulness of his nuclear weapons program. North Korean state media showed images of its leader looking charismatic with a large motorcade. In another image, it appeared that Xi was making a toast to Kim. Whether the narrative is true or not, Kim can now claim that he was on even footing with the leader of one of the world’s most powerful nations.
Now, to the question at hand: Why shouldn’t President Donald Trump meet with Kim? At face value, this meeting seems to be an unmitigated success — Trump has managed to do what his predecessors couldn’t. He got Kim to come to the negotiating table. However, by doing so, Trump would effectively be validating everything Kim has done up until this point. Let’s start from the beginning. Kim started developing nuclear weapons under the premise that he would not be taken seriously by the superpowers if he did not have these weapons of mass destruction. Time and time again, these superpowers tried to stop him from getting the nuclear weapons without giving him a seat at the table. Eventually, he was able to advance his nuclear capabilities to the point where, in his eyes, he is now a credible threat. Consequently, Kim was able to visit Beijing and meet with one of the most powerful men in the world.
Now, he has a chance to meet with the leader of the free world. If you were Kim or the leader of another smaller nation, what would you conclude from this series of events? If you do not have the capability to become an economic powerhouse, the only way to become a player at the big boys’ table is to become a military power through the acquisition of nuclear weapons. So, President Trump, I’d urge you to carry on with caution and pay attention to the kinds of signals you are sending. It’s easy to get distracted by porn stars and special counsels. Especially with what seems like an endless stream of news that comes out of this White House, there’s only so much we can keep track of, but this one decision, no matter how dry, could have implications for the security of the world.
Rishabh Kewalramani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.