Back in March South Korean officials briefed President Trump on their recent visit to Pyongyang, where the North Korean leader expressed a willingness to discuss nuclear disarmament with the U.S. and said he would suspend all nuclear and missile tests during the dialogue.
Trump impulsively agreed to a summit with the man he had derided as “Little Rocket Man” in his Twitter rants, without any strategic plan or even an ask for North Korea. By doing so he did what no other president had ever done before: he gave legitimacy to the murderous dictatorship of Kim Jong Un and elevated North Korea to equal footing with the United States as a nuclear power on the world stage.
Trump started praising Kim Jong Un as “honorable” and even canceled a B-52 bomber training exercise with South Korea after the South Korean government expressed concerns that it could generate tensions before the summit. The White House even minted a Commemorative ‘Peace Talks’ Coin Ahead of the Trump-Kim Summit.
Then all of this suddenly changed today when Trump just as impulsively canceled the Korea summit that he had so impulsively agreed to in March. This was entirely predictable. It was never going to happen.
Paul Waldman of the Washington Post explains What really led to Trump’s North Korea faceplant:
Looks like President Trump may have to wait for that Nobel Peace Prize he has been hoping for:
President Trump on Thursday canceled a planned summit next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, citing “tremendous anger and open hostility” from the rogue nation in a letter explaining his abrupt decision.
“I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting,” Trump said to Kim in a letter released by the White House on Thursday morning.
This is what we call “cutting your losses.” We’ve had reports in recent days that Trump was having second thoughts about the summit after learning, to his shock and dismay, that the North Koreans were not eager to simply give up all their nuclear weapons right away. So it appears that after a couple of weeks in which he and his administration seemed to be trying everything they could think of to sabotage any chance for an agreement, Trump decided that canceling the summit now was preferable to holding the summit and coming away with nothing after raising expectations so extraordinarily high.
Nevertheless, this is still a monumental faceplant on Trump’s part. He’s the one who agreed to this summit on a whim, partly because no president before him had done it, and partly because he believes his powers as a negotiator are so overwhelming that he could come away with a fantastic deal that would get him praise from everyone and maybe even that Nobel Prize that “everyone thinks” he deserves, or so he believes.
One has to marvel at just how spectacularly Trump and the other key members of his administration have screwed up this opportunity. And it all stemmed from a basic problem: The man who thinks he’s the greatest negotiator in the world has absolutely no idea how to negotiate.
That’s because the most important part of a successful negotiation is understanding the person on the other side of the table. What do they want? What do they fear? What might they be willing to give up? What incentives do they face? What forces are pushing against them? If you don’t know those things, you can’t be successful. And as Trump has shown time and again, he just doesn’t care about the person on the other side of the table. He thinks that negotiation is about bullying: Show them you’re stronger than they are, threaten to abandon the negotiation, and they’ll back down and give you what you want. As far as he’s concerned, all negotiations are zero-sum; either you’re the winner or the loser, and you have to be the winner.
When it comes to North Korea, there is one fundamental fact that should have guided the Trump administration’s strategy: Like any dictator, Kim Jong Un lives in fear of being deposed, and he believes — not without reason — that his nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantee of his continued power and even his very life. The fact that he just shut down a nuclear test site (just hours before Trump canceled the summit) doesn’t diminish this in the slightest; the North Koreans got what they needed from that site, and if they want to, they can open another.
Once you understand how Kim sees his nuclear weapons, you realize a couple of things. First, you’re going to have to offer some pretty fantastic incentives to get him to give up those weapons. Second, the negotiations have to proceed with care, because he won’t give them up unless he feels safe and reassured.
But instead of trying to make Kim feel safe and reassured, the Trump administration did exactly the opposite. They offered threats and bluster, which were bound to have the effect of convincing Kim that we want to overthrow him and he needs his nuclear weapons now more than ever.
Consider this series of statements:
- National security adviser John Bolton said “the Libya model” is the one we should follow with North Korea. On the surface, he was talking about the deal made with Moammar Gaddafi in 2003 to give up his nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic assistance. But as Bolton knew full well, North Korean officials regularly bring up Gaddafi’s experience, as well as that of Saddam Hussein, as the reason they should never give up their nuclear weapons. Gaddafi and Hussein gave up the quest for nuclear weapons and were later deposed and killed. Many speculated that Bolton, who has been eager for a military strike on North Korea, made this incredibly provocative statement in an attempt to spur the North Koreans to abandon negotiation.
- Once someone explained all that to Trump, he publicly said that we wouldn’t be pursuing the “Libya model,” though in his statement he appeared to think the Libya model referred only to the U.S. role in Gaddafi’s ouster. (“In Libya, we decimated that country. That country was decimated.”) But in trying to clarify Bolton’s remarks, Trump only repeated the threat to depose and kill Kim, saying that Libya’s experience shows “what will take place if we don’t make a deal.”
- In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Vice President Pence again repeated the threat that the United States would depose and kill Kim if an agreement were not reached. “You know, there were some talk about the Libya model last week. And you know, as the president made clear, you know, this will only end like the Libya Model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal,” he said. “Some people saw that as a threat,” said the interviewer. “I think it’s more of a fact,” Pence replied.
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress yesterday, “We have made zero concessions to Chairman Kim to date, and we have no intention of doing so.”
So what does this all add up to? Kim Jong Un already believes that as formidable as his conventional deterrent might be (all that artillery aimed at Seoul), the fact that he has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them all the way to the U.S. mainland are the most important deterrents against an effort by the United States to depose him. Instead of trying to convince him that we aren’t interested in removing him and he should feel secure enough to give up those weapons, the Trump administration has done exactly the opposite: worked to make him feel more threatened and less secure.
That’s on top of the fact that Trump just pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, in which that country curtailed its nuclear program and allowed in international inspectors, only to see this president say that it wasn’t good enough and renege on the deal. If you were Kim, would you trust the United States right now?
That’s what Trump just can’t seem to wrap his head around. Even if we’re the most powerful country on Earth, if we want Kim to give up his nukes, he’s going to have to trust us. And Trump is doing everything possible to make that impossible.
Finally, we should say that there can certainly be an agreement without a summit between the two leaders; there have been agreements with North Korea before without such a meeting. In fact, that might be better, because if you put Trump in a room with Kim, there’s no telling what he might say, do or give away. So today’s development doesn’t mean there’s no more chance that we might get North Korea to denuclearize. It might still be salvageable.
But if there’s a way to screw up that effort, you can be sure Donald Trump is going to find it.
Spencer Ackerman writes, Even in Canceling Nuke Summit, Trump Gave North Korea What It Wanted:
Former officials and experts experienced with North Korea and northeast Asian diplomacy warned that the U.S. was now in a far worse geopolitical position—and that the pivotal nations of China and South Korea would blame Trump for the collapse of the summit. The dynamic that North Korea established in February, when it led a charm offensive at the Winter Olympics and portrayed itself as the driver of international events, is likely to prove far more durable than any summit, they said.
“We’re not just going to revert back to the way things were ahead of the Olympics,” said Abraham Denmark, the Pentagon’s senior Asia policy official during the Obama administration.
“North Korea’s international stature has grown significantly. Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy is far greater than it was before. The U.S. is increasingly seen as the outlier in the region, not engaged.”
Jim Walsh, an international-security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Trump’s reversals from a summit he seemed enthusiastic about holding would reverberate beyond the region.
“This president cancels the Iran agreement, agrees to a summit and then cancels that,” Walsh said. “If you’re a world leader thinking about whether you want to do business with this guy, you’re gonna be gun-shy, thinking he’ll reverse himself and leave you hanging.”
Nicholas Kristof adds at the New York Times, Trump’s Relationship With North Korea Just Got More Dangerous:
Now we enter a more dangerous period in relations with North Korea.
President Trump topped a particularly inept diplomatic period by canceling his meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. The previous policy of maximum economic pressure on North Korea may no longer be viable, so the risk is that Trump ends up reaching for the military toolbox.
As every president since Nixon — except for Trump — has realized, the military options are too dangerous to employ. That’s even more true today, when North Korea apparently has the capacity to use nuclear, chemical and biological weapons against Seoul, Tokyo and perhaps Los Angeles. Yet Pentagon officials seem deeply nervous that Trump doesn’t realize this and has a Kim-like appetite for brinkmanship in ways that create risks of a cataclysm.
It was at least a relief that Trump, in calling off the direct talks, didn’t slam the door on diplomacy. “I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting,” he wrote Kim in a letter, in a tone more of regret than of anger. He added, “Some day, I very much look forward to meeting you.”
He noted that South Korea and Japan were “ready should foolish or reckless acts be taken by North Korea.”
Trump apparently canceled both because of recent North Korean belligerent rhetoric, including denunciations of Vice President Mike Pence, and because it grew clear that North Korea wasn’t planning on giving up its nuclear weapons any time soon. There was some political risk that Trump would look foolish reaching a general agreement with North Korea that was much less significant and onerous than the one he tore up with Iran.
The Trump statement leaves open the possibility that South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who has been the crucial figure in the peace process, can put Humpty Dumpty back together again, so that a meeting could be held later this year. Indeed, if the cancellation now leads to working-level talks between American and North Korean officials, that would be progress.
The risk, though, is that we’re back to confrontation.
I hope that North Korea will respond to Trump’s letter in similarly measured, calm terms. But no one has ever made money betting on North Korean calmness.
North Korea could decide to create a new crisis, perhaps by conducting a missile test or an atmospheric nuclear test. If an atmospheric test were conducted in the northern Pacific, it could send radiation toward the U.S. and would be perceived in Washington as a great provocation.
Likewise, the U.S. could respond to new tensions by sending B-1 bombers off the coast of North Korea. If North Korea scrambled aircraft or fired antiaircraft missiles, we could very quickly have an enormous escalation.
In any case, it will be difficult for Trump to return to his policy of strangling North Korea economically. China has already been quietly relaxing sanctions, and South Korea may not have the stomach for strong sanctions, either. Kim has met with the leaders of both China and South Korea in recent months, building ties and reducing his isolation, and I expect he’ll continue the outreach to both countries.
Some Republicans have praised Trump for his North Korea diplomacy, and there’s been talk about him winning a Nobel Peace Prize. That was always ludicrous, and his North Korea policy is in fact a fine example of ineptitude.
Here’s what actually happened.
Trump’s jingoistic rhetoric didn’t particularly intimidate North Korea, but it terrified South Korea, which feared it would be collateral damage in a new Korean War. So President Moon shrewdly used the Olympics to undertake a careful peace mission to bring the U.S. and North Korea together, flattering each side to make this happen (Moon is a world-class Trump flatterer, and other leaders around the world have noted his success). This was commendable on Moon’s part; he’s the one who genuinely did have a shot at the peace prize.
As I wrote at the time, however, it was a mistake when Trump rashly accepted the idea of a summit meeting without any careful preparations. The risk of starting a diplomatic process with a face-to-face session is that if talks collapse at the top, then it’s difficult to pick up at a lower level. That’s precisely what ended up happening, and this dynamic creates greater risk than ever of military conflict.
With different aides, Trump might have pulled it off. While Trump and his fans were always deluded about the possibility that North Korea would soon hand over its nuclear weapons, there was some possibility of a general statement about starting a dialogue about denuclearization. North Korea would destroy some intercontinental ballistic missiles, tensions would drop, and we’d all be better off even if denuclearization never actually happened. Yes, Trump would have been played, but the world would still have benefited from the peace process.
Yet John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, spoke up in ways calculated to unnerve the North Koreans, by talking about the Libya model. When you cite as a model a country whose leader ended up being executed by his own people, that’s not usually persuasive to another dictator. On my most recent visit to North Korea, in September, officials cited the Libyan experience as one reason they needed to hold on to their nuclear weapons.
North Korean leaders themselves responded to Bolton’s comments with harsh, over-the-top rhetoric, including the comment about Pence. This was a major miscalculation on their part, escalating the ineptitude and helping to kill plans for talks with Trump.
While the North Koreans didn’t get the summit meeting they wanted, they have managed the process quite well. They used the rush of diplomacy to rebuild ties with Beijing and start discussions about economic integration with South Korea, and to moderate their international image. They’ve also created something of a wedge between Washington and Seoul, as was apparent in the response to Trump’s cancellation by a South Korean government spokesman: “We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means.”
In weighing the risks ahead, commentators sometimes note that Kim is rational and doesn’t want to commit suicide. That’s true, but it doesn’t particularly encourage me.
Both Trump and Kim would still like to make a summit happen. So I’m hoping for the best, but fearing for the worst.