Here's the biggest mistake Trump could make at the North Korea summit

  • President Donald J. Trump will hold a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un—giving the ultimate concession, a legitimizing meeting with the leader of the free world—for nothing in return.
  • For Kim Jong Un, a photo with a sitting American President depicting the two as equals, would help him cultivate an international environment much more favorable to doing business with his regime.
  • The president must demand that Pyongyang in some meaningful way give a definitive guarantee that it will give up its nuclear weapons.
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Getty Images
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

It seems that unless something changes between now and June 12, President Donald J. Trump will hold a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un—giving the ultimate concession, a legitimizing meeting with the leader of the free world—for nothing in return.

That would be a diplomatic mistake of historic proportions. In fact, it would be far worse than the Iran nuclear deal or the policy mistakes other U.S. administrations have made on North Korea going back to 1950s.

For Kim Jong Un, a photo with a sitting American President depicting the two as equals, would help him cultivate an international environment much more favorable to doing business with his regime. Nations like China, Russia and Iran would feel embolden to work with Pyongyang, making the argument that if Trump can meet with Kim we can have ties with them too.

The maximum pressure campaign the Trump Administration has spent months building, would be dead the second the first picture of Trump and Kim hits Twitter.

Thankfully, there is a way out of this dilemma, with some reports suggesting a move back to a tougher line. The president must demand that Pyongyang in some meaningful way—either in a joint communique or statement before or during the summit, give a definitive guarantee that it will give up its nuclear weapons.

"If the administration can't secure such a pledge, Trump should walk out of the meeting before the cameras can take one joint picture of them—or never board Air Force One for the trip to Singapore in the first place."

Such a pledge does not need to spell out in granular detail every aspect of what denuclearization would look like; as such a negotiation would be far too technical for Kim or Trump. It would need to be conducted over months and away from the spotlight of the cameras.

However, North Korea must declare that it will give up its nuclear arms no later than the end of Trump's first term, say by January 2021. If the administration can't secure such a pledge, Trump should walk out of the meeting before the cameras can take one joint picture of them—or never board Air Force One for the trip to Singapore in the first place.

How we ended up in this situation, considering Team Trump's tough but appropriate stance is a strange tale.

At least until June 1, the administration declared that a meeting and better relations with Washington was dependent on something called CVID, or the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

But then, and quite suddenly, Trump seemed to change course completely.

After a meeting with North Korean spy master Kim Yong-chol, the president seemed to take an almost dovish stance. He explained he did not want to use the phrase maximum pressure anymore, and that "we're not going to go in and sign something on June 12th and we never were."

Going soft on the Kim regime would simply repeat countless mistakes America has made when it comes to North Korea. Time and time again, Pyongyang has built-up its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, putting the world on edge, only to ask for talks and a compromise.

America and its allies, after appearing to stand firm, always end up agreeing to talk—a process that gets dragged on for months or years. All the while, North Korea simply builds more missiles and nuclear weapons and cheats on any agreement signed—or just backs out of them.

There may be reason to believe Trump was trying to give Kim cover at home. There has been word of hardliners in his military who are against surrendering their nuclear weapons. On Monday, several North Korean generals were suddenly replaced, a move that could be seen as helping Kim shift his country and armed forces toward a potential deal.

If this is not the case, and Trump just changed course to make history, he should know that this sort of reality TV-type selfie diplomacy plays right into the North Koreans' hands—most likely giving them a free pass to keep their nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, forever. That would set off a chain reaction where South Korea or Japan could seek their own nuclear weapons, sparking an atomic arms race in East Asia.

Hold firm, President Trump. History will remember you far more favorably if you do what is right than what comes easy.

Commentary by Harry J. Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest. He also serves as executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously served as part of the foreign policy team for the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Ted Cruz. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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