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THE WASHINGTON POST OPINIONS

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (KCNA via KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

The best con men pull off their schemes without their marks ever knowing or admitting they were conned. In that sense North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is already well on his way to picking President Trump’s pocket.

At a press availability on Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump spoke about the planned meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders: “We have been told directly that they would like to have the meeting as soon as possible. And we think that’s a great thing for the world. … Kim Jong Un, he really has been very open and I think very honorable from everything we’re seeing.”

Macron gets points for not laughing. Trump’s remarks were stupid, wrong and dangerous.

Kim Jong Un is arguably the world’s worst perpetrator of human rights atrocities. Freedom House described the regime as follows:

North Korea is a one-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship. Surveillance is pervasive, arbitrary arrests and detention are common, and punishments for political offenses are severe. The state maintains a system of camps for political prisoners where torture, forced labor, starvation, and other atrocities take place. While some social and economic changes have been observed in recent years, including a growth in small-scale private business activity, human rights violations are still widespread, grave, and systematic.

It was just Friday that acting secretary of state John J. Sullivan rolled out State’s annual human rights reports. “The DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea] is one of the most repressive and abusive regimes in the world,” he said then. “As the report makes clear, the Kim regime systematically neglects the well-being of its people to underwrite and fund its illicit weapons programs via forced labor, child labor, and the export of North Korean workers.”

There is nothing remotely honorable or open about Kim Jong Un, who among other things is thought to be responsible for the killings of his uncle and half-brother. We should never concede his regime has legitimacy or deserves to be treated as just another nation-state. The Obama administration mistakenly agreed to leave human rights and other issues outside the confines of the Iran talks, thereby giving Iran’s leaders a green light to run amok. The Trump administration should never signal it will ignore Kim’s horrendous human rights abuses. (A good negotiator seeking the upper hand with a ruthless adversary would bring photographic evidence of the labor camps.)

If Trump was referring to Kim’s conduct in arranging negotiations, he was wrong again. Kim Jong Un isn’t honorable or open in that context either. Trump is a naif on the world stage and seems to be under the assumption, for example, that by using the term “denuclearization” Kim is offering to get rid of all his nukes and open his closed country up for inspections. Not even Trump advisers buy that, we can be certain. Trump fails to understand that North Korean code words don’t mean what they seem to mean.

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute explains:

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s desire to negotiate without preconditions is not what it seems: After all, removing preconditions requires the formal voiding of every previous commitment North Korea made in negotiations. But, the risk goes further. Any peace treaty would end the United Nations Command which legitimizes and formalizes the U.S. presence in South Korea. In effect, the Trump administration would be trading the security of a key U.S. ally and one of the most vibrant economies in East Asia for the promise of North Korean denuclearization, a promise North Korea has repeatedly broken.

Trump sees himself as a master negotiator and, without doubt, the president deserves credit for not yet rewarding North Korean bluster in the manner that so many of his predecessors did. But, while the United States should aspire to peace on the Korean Peninsula, it should never be done on North Korea’s terms. Indeed, any juxtaposition of North and South Korea today shows just how wise President Truman’s decision was to defend South Korea from communist aggression. Trump may see himself as master of the art of the deal, but true mastery comes with a recognition that sometimes it’s best not to negotiate a deal in the first place or, at the very least, not negotiate any new deal until an adversary implements all the terms of previous deals to which it has committed.

Moreover, denuclearization for North Korea does not mean disarmament. Nicholas Eberstadt wrote for The Post recently:

For good or ill, the Kim regime’s strategic objectives remain essentially unchanged since 1950, when Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Un’s grandfather) launched the surprise attack against the South that triggered the Korean War. To this day, North Korean ideology posits the unconditional reunification of the Korean people under an “independent socialist state” — and this presupposes the eradication of the existing government in South Korea.

Given South Korea’s extraordinary economic accomplishments and democratic progress, the North’s quest for unconditional absorption of the South could only begin to seem even remotely plausible if the U.S.-South Korea alliance were disbanded, U.S. troops sent home, and Washington’s nuclear guarantee withdrawn. And this is exactly where the North’s long-range nuclear missile program figures in. By pointing a nuclear pistol at Uncle Sam, the Kim family regime hopes it can eventually force the United States out of the Korean Peninsula — and thereby reset the contest against the South.

Honorable? Open? Not in the least.

You can understand why some of us are very worried about putting Trump in the room with Kim Jong Un. The danger is not that Trump walks out but that he stays and says things that cause Kim to miscalculate wildly, thereby bringing us to the point of war or a serious rupture with our allies. (This would be a horrible echo of the first Korean War.) Do we think the man who could not follow “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” instructions for a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to watch what he says with Kim Jong Un? Of course not.

Every time Trump opens his mouth or his Twitter account he risks pushing South Korea into an unsatisfactory partial deal with its menace to the North. (Are they supposed to rely on Trump?) He also winds up convincing North Korea, not to mention China and every other adversary, that he is a fool waiting to have his pocket picked. And they’d be right about that.