Foreign Policy: The Singapore Summit’s Uncertainty


June 25, 2018

Foreign Policy: The Singapore Summit’s Uncertainty

by Richard N. Haass

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/trump-kim-singapore-summit-outcome-by-richard-n–haass-2018-06

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Donald Trump’s depiction of his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a great success that solved the nuclear problem could make it tougher to maintain international support for the economic sanctions that are still needed to pressure Kim. Weakening the prospect of achieving one’s goals is not the mark of a strong negotiator.

 

NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump returned from his short summit meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in an exultant mood. “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office,” Trump tweeted. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” He subsequently told reporters, “I have solved that problem.”

There is only one catch: what Trump claimed was untrue. The nuclear threat posed by North Korea remains undiminished. The joint statement issued by the two leaders was as brief – just 391 words – as it was vague.

The statement was far more about aspirations than accomplishments. North Korea committed only “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Missing was any definition of what denuclearization might entail, a timeline for implementation, or a reference to how any actions would be verified. Other issues related to nuclear weapons, including ballistic missiles, were not even mentioned. Thus far, at least, the agreement with North Korea compares unfavorably to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump denounced – and then renounced a month before meeting Kim.

This is not to argue that the Singapore summit had no value. At least for now, bilateral relations are in a better place than they were a year ago, when North Korea was conducting nuclear and missile tests, and observers (including me) were busy calculating the chances that the two countries would be making war rather than peace. And, looking forward, there is, in principle, the possibility that the United States and North Korea will be able to reach agreement on the many relevant issues and details that the Singapore summit statement left out.

But turning this possibility into reality will be extraordinarily difficult. There are many reasons to doubt whether North Korea will ever give up weaponry that, more than anything else, explains America’s willingness to take it seriously and treat it as something of an equal. In addition, the experience of Ukraine, a country that gave up its nuclear weapons, only to see the world do nothing when Russia annexed Crimea, hardly provides a reason for Kim Jong-un to follow suit. Much the same could be said of Libya, given Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fate.

There is also good reason to doubt that North Korea, arguably the world’s most closed and secretive country, would ever permit the sort of intrusive international inspections that would be required to verify that it had complied with undertakings spelled out in some future pact.

Trump seems to think that Kim can be swayed not simply by threats and pressure, but by flattery and promises as well. The White House released a four-minute video that showcased Kim as someone who could be a great historical figure if only he would fundamentally change. The video also went to great lengths to show what North Korea could gain economically were it to meet US demands. The president even spoke of the North’s potential as a venue for real-estate development and tourism.

What seems not to have occurred to Trump is that such a future holds more peril than promise to someone whose family has ruled with an iron grip for three generations. A North Korea open to Western businessmen might soon find itself penetrated by Western ideas. Popular unrest would be sure to follow.

Trump emphasizes the importance of personal relationships, and he claimed to have developed one with Kim in a matter of hours. More than once, he spoke of the trust he had for a leader with a record of killing off those (including an uncle and a brother) he deemed his enemies. All of this turned Ronald Reagan’s maxim – “trust, but verify” – on its head, to something like “Don’t verify, but trust.”

In fact, some of Trump’s post-summit remarks have actually weakened the prospect of achieving his goals. His depiction of the summit as a great success that solved the nuclear problem will make it that much tougher to maintain international support for the economic sanctions that are still needed to pressure North Korea. Trump also did himself no favor by unilaterally announcing that the US would no longer conduct what he described as “provocative” war games, also known as military exercises meant to ensure readiness and enhance deterrence. In so doing, he not only alarmed several US allies, but also gave away what he could have traded for something from North Korea.

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The danger, of course, is that subsequent negotiations will fail, for all these reasons, to bring about the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea that the US has said must happen soon. Trump would likely then accuse Kim of betraying his trust.

In that case, the US would have three options. It could accept less than full denuclearization, an outcome that Trump and his top aides have said they would reject. It could impose even stricter sanctions, to which China and Russia are unlikely to sign up. Or it could reintroduce the threat of military force, which South Korea, in particular, would resist.

But if Trump concludes that diplomacy has failed, he could nonetheless opt for military action, a course John Bolton suggested just before becoming national security adviser. This would hardly be the legacy that Trump intended for the Singapore summit, but it remains more possible than his optimistic tweets would lead one to believe.

Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. He is the author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

Foreign Policy: The Despot and The Diplomat


June 22, 2018

The Despot and The Diplomat

by Christopher R. Hill

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/diplomacy-with-despots-kim-milosevic-by-christopher-r-hill-2018-06

With his effusive praise of Kim Jong-un’s leadership and North Korea’s economic potential, Donald Trump has abandoned any pretense that the US has a broader set of values to promote. Whether this approach works to advance peace will depend on the diplomacy that follows.

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DENVER – Back in 2005, when I was the United States’ lead negotiator at the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, I looked at the instructions I received for my first meeting, a Chinese-hosted banquet that included a North Korean delegation. If there was any toasting (not unheard of at Chinese banquets), I was not to join in. Apparently, I was expected to sit there, without touching my glass, glowering with arms folded until everyone else had placed theirs back on the table. Later, when I visited North Korea for the first time, I was instructed not to smile at my hosts. Apparently, I was expected to offer only angry stares.

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Donald Trump has obviously modified those instructions. In fact, with his unending praise of Kim Jong-un’s leadership, his clumsy, impromptu salute of one of Kim’s generals, and his endorsement of all things North Korean (especially the potential for beachfront property development), Trump has all but abandoned any pretense that the US promotes a broader set of values. But while Trump may have overshot the mark, the idea that the US delegation should sit with glasses untouched during a toast also strikes the wrong tone.

In September 1995, during the final month of the Bosnian War, the US delegation to peace negotiations, led by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, arrived in Belgrade for talks with Serbia’s dictator, Slobodan Milošević. According to Milošević, he could not compel the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons and lift the bloody four-year siege of Sarajevo. He asked Holbrooke to meet with the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, both of whom were later convicted of committing war crimes. Holbrooke asked where they were. “Over there in that villa,” Milošević replied. “Can I call for them?”

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Ambassador Richard Hoolbroke–A Giant of American Diplomacy

Read this tribute: http://www.newsweek.com/richard-holbrooke-disappointed-man-69125

Holbrooke hastily brought our delegation together for a quick parley. “Should we meet them?” he asked me. “And if we do, should I shake their hands?” Thinking about the hundreds of thousands of Sarajevans – the many who had been murdered and those facing starvation as a result of the continuing siege – I replied, “Shake their hands and let’s get this over with and go home.” We did. The siege of Sarajevo was lifted the next day.

Whether shaking a hand helps or not, negotiating while shaking a fist has little record of success. During this year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to meet with the North Korean delegation. Perhaps to cover his back at home, Pence delivered what were then the usual tough-sounding talking points before the meeting. The North Koreans promptly canceled, as if to ask, What would be the point?

During the period I dealt with the six-party talks, I avoided adding my voice to the anti-North Korean invective. I knew that soon – often every other week – I would have to meet them again, and while a display of moxie might help me in Washington, it would not help at the tip of the spear, where it was my job to negotiate away the North Koreans’ nuclear ambitions. There is a big difference between talking tough on television talk shows and sitting across from the North Koreans. Direct diplomacy is a serious means to a serious end. Posturing from a distance is not part of it.

Sometimes body language is hard to get right. As US ambassador to Iraq, the instructions I received from Washington rarely came with any commensurate sense of responsibility for the outcome. I was told that my job included helping the Iraqi opposition rid themselves of then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. US officials reveled in their amped-up toughness in Washington meeting rooms, like high school athletes banging on the lockers before a big game. But when they actually came out on the field and met with Maliki, they gave him no reason to believe they wanted anything but the best for him.

I would sit in such meetings watching Maliki glance over at me, wondering why I had previously warned him of diminishing US government patience with his autocratic rule and dire consequences. Meanwhile, the visitors from Washington made points that were so subtle and nuanced that Maliki would have needed a decoding device to comprehend their real meaning.

Any diplomat must be purposeful in a negotiation on behalf of his or her country, which means being clear-eyed about the desired outcome and the best way to achieve it. In Singapore, the issue was the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Nothing else really mattered.

Time will tell whether the North Koreans reciprocate Trump’s professed affection for them. Kim gave away little, and was probably stunned when, for the first time ever, a US president accepted at face value North Korea’s supposed anxiety about US joint military exercises with South Korea (which the North Koreans know to be defensive in purpose). That was too large a concession, and, one way or another, it will have to be taken back. More broadly, a framework for peace and security that includes all the directly affected parties – South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China – will need to be designed.

Similarly, North Korea’s human rights record, one of the world’s worst, will have to be taken up in the future – perhaps, as I signaled during the six-party talks, as a component of eventual diplomatic relations. But, for now, the North Korean nuclear program must be at the top of any negotiating agenda.

Whether Trump’s approach actually works with North Korea will depend on the diplomacy that follows the Singapore summit. Over to you, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

*Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, a US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is Chief Advisor to the Chancellor for Global Engagement and Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of Outpost.

Fareed’s Take on Trump-Kim Singapore Summit


June 17, 2018

Fareed’s Take on Trump-Kim Singapore Summit:

“U.S. weakens its 70-year alliance with South Korea.”

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2018/6/14/this-should-have-been-the-real-headline-of-the-trump-kim-summit

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“America will remain the world’s dominant power in the 21st century only if it is the dominant Pacific power,” the late Lee Kuan Yew often said to me. Lee, the founder of modern Singapore and one of the smartest strategic minds I have ever encountered, spoke about this issue late in life, as he worried about the breakdown of the stability that had allowed for the extraordinary global growth of the past half-century. The key, he was certain, was deep U.S. engagement in Asia, which was quickly becoming the center of global economics and power. Alas, President Trump appears to be doing everything he can to violate Lee’s dictum.

The media got it wrong. The real headline of the Trump-Kim summit — ironically held in Singapore, the city-state that Lee built — should have been: “U.S. weakens its 70-year alliance with South Korea.” The most striking elements of Trump’s initiative were not simply that he lavished praise on North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, but also that he announced the cancellation of military exercises with South Korea, adopting North Korea’s own rhetoric by calling them “provocative.”

The President must have missed his briefing. In fact, it is North Korea that provokes and threatens South Korea, as it has done since it first invaded the South in 1950. North Korea is thought to have about 1 million active-duty troops, almost twice as many as the South, and it has constructed perhaps as many as 20 tunnels to possibly mount a surprise invasion. North Korea also has more than 6,000 pieces of artillery that can reach South Korea, including some whose range is so long that they endanger 32.5 million people, more than half the country’s population, according to a study by the Rand Corp. The Defense Department estimated in 2006 that if North Korea opened artillery fire on the South, 250,000 people would be killed in Seoul alone, the Rand study notes. Of course, about a decade later, North Korea now has up to 60 nuclear bombs, complete with the missiles to deliver them. South Korea’s “war games” with the United States are necessary defensive exercises undertaken in the shadow of an aggressive adversary.

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President Donald Trump takes South  Korea for granted

Even worse, Trump signaled that he would like to end the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. He is wrong that this would save money, unless he plans to demobilize the troops — which would mean cutting the United States’ active-duty forces, the opposite of his policy. Since South Korea covers almost half the costs of U.S. troops stationed there, moving them to, say, Georgia would not be cheaper. But that’s beside the point. Through bitter experience, the United States has found that it is much better to have troops ready, battle-trained and with knowledge of the local geography rather than keeping them all in the United States, only to be sent abroad when trouble breaks out.

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A few commentators have pointed out that the big winner of the Singapore summit was the great power that was not even there: China. That’s exactly right. Consider what China has always wanted. First, the stabilization of North Korea. Until recently, there was much talk of the impending implosion of the North Korean regime. For China, this would be a nightmare, since unification would take place on South Korean terms. This would mean a large democratic state allied with Washington, housing U.S. troops right on China’s border. That nightmare looks unlikely now that the United States is promising security guarantees for North Korea and dangling aid and investment.

China’s second great desire has been to rid Asia of U.S. troops, especially from the mainland. Trump appears inclined to do this as well. After the Cold War, many Asian countries got nervous that the United States would withdraw from Asia, leaving its allies to the tender mercies of a rising China. To assure them otherwise, Joseph Nye, a top Defense Department official in the Clinton administration, formulated a report and initiative that committed the United States to maintain a forward troop presence in Asia of about 100,000. Were Trump to follow through on his impulse to withdraw troops from South Korea, the United States would fall far below that threshold.

For China, the Trump administration has been the gift that keeps on giving. Trump began his term in office by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was created by a group of U.S. allies to stand as an alternative to the Chinese market. The partnership was a bulwark against Chinese power that could have proved attractive to other Asian countries. Now the rules of the road are being written in Asia, and they are being written in Mandarin.

Lee was right. The long game for the United States over the next few decades is how to handle the rise of China. And right now, we are quitting the field.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The Trump-Kim Summit: Reality TV or a New Era?


June 13, 2018

The Trump-Kim Summit: Reality TV or a New Era?

In Singapore, North Korea reaffirmed an agreement to “work toward” complete denuclearization. But two other key words long sought by the U.S.—“verifiable” and “irreversible”—were missing.Photograph by Evan Vucci / AP

 

Three days after angering his six closest Western allies, President Trump embraced Asia’s most notorious dictator at a steamy resort in Singapore and heralded a “very special bond” in new relations between the United States and North Korea. Trump and Kim signed a two-page statement—big on ideas but slim on specifics—that committed North Korea to “complete denuclearization” and said that the United States would “provide security guarantees” for a country with which it is still technically at war.

“We’re very proud of what took place today,” Trump said, after the two men, appearing relaxed after three rounds of talks, signed the four-point declaration. “I think our whole relationship with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is going to be a very much different situation than it has been in the past. We both want to do something.” The President said that the world will be “very impressed, very happy” as the two nations take care of “a very dangerous problem for the world.”

Kim chimed in, saying, “We had a very historic meeting and agreed to leave the past behind. The world will see a major change.”

The four-point statement committed the countries to establishing new diplomatic relations. It pledged to “join efforts” to build a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula, and that would appear to include South Korea. In especially vague terms, North Korea reaffirmed an agreement—originally made between the two Koreas at their historic summit on April 27th—to “work toward” complete denuclearization. Two other key words long sought by the United States—“verifiable” and “irreversible”—were missing. Finally, the two nations vowed to recover the remains of prisoners of war from the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, in which more than thirty-three thousand Americans were killed. Almost eight thousand American troops remain unaccounted for.

Trump also announced that he would cancel regularly scheduled military exercises—which he referred to as “war games”—with South Korea, which have been pivotal to South Korea’s security. Trump called the exercises, which will next take place in August, “provocative,” adopting North Korea’s position and language on both terms. The United States still has twenty-eight thousand troops in the South.

In Washington, there is broad support for Trump’s diplomacy, especially after a year of threatening rhetoric that seemed to move the U.S. and North Korea ominously close to war. Ten months ago, the President warned Kim of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Yet former U.S. negotiators with North Korea and senior military experts who worked on the issue were distinctly unimpressed—even baffled—by the lack of substance at the summit, the first meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.

“As hyped as the meeting was, the result is underwhelming,” Wendy Sherman, who was a top negotiator with North Korea in the Clinton and Obama Administrations and the lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal, said. “The document not only doesn’t break new ground—it is less than previous documents, including the 1992 Joint Declaration, the Agreed Framework of 1994, and the September, 2005, Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks.” All were diplomatic initiatives by the three previous Presidents that eventually collapsed because Pyongyang was found to be cheating or in violation of its pledges.

All earlier efforts by both Republican and Democratic Administrations emphasized verification, the core issue in virtually every U.S. agreement on nuclear-arms control with any nation, and incorporated international accords such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Trump also gave Kim a “major concession” without equivalent reciprocal steps, Sherman added, by cancelling joint exercises with South Korea.

The government in Seoul appeared surprised by the cancellation. “We need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point,” a South Korean military official said. The Pentagon also appeared to be caught off guard by the announcement, the Times reported. Defense Secretary James Mattis has long backed the U.S.-South Korean exercises as central to America’s role in East Asia. Pentagon officials both in Seoul and Washington said they had received no new instructions and were still planning for exercises that are now only a couple of months away.

The brief statement “landed with a thud,” Abraham Denmark, the director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, told me. “No new commitments from Kim on denuclearization, or even a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs. No new assurances from the United States. The statement mostly reiterates what was said at the inter-Korean summit, and sets vague plans for future meetings. We knew there was a long way to go, but this statement makes very little progress.”

Pyongyang and Beijing are the big winners coming out of the summit, especially because of the limits on U.S. military activities in South Korea. Trump had also suggested earlier that he might draw down U.S. troops, who have been stationed on the Peninsula for seven decades. “Kim got a huge propaganda win and a metric ton of legitimacy,” Denmark said. “Expect North Korean media to replay these images for years, showing how the world respects Kim and that North Korea is now recognized as an equal to the United States and the other great powers of the world. Kim gave up nothing new.” China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, got everything that it wanted, too.

At the press conference, Trump said he has extended an invitation to Kim to visit the White House at some “appropriate” time in the future, implying after progress has been made with “denuclearization”—the pivotal concept that’s still not spelled out specifically in the statement. Kim accepted the invitation, the President said, adding, “There’s no limit to what North Korea can achieve if it gives up its nuclear weapons.” The White House prepared a four-minute video to illustrate the potential for Kim—and the alternatives.

“A new world can begin today—one of respect, friendship, and good will,” the narrator vows, referring to Trump and Kim as “two men, two leaders, one destiny.” The video features high-rise condo units, drones, packed grocery stores, car-assembly plants, and babies in modern incubators. “The past does not have to be the future,” the narrator says. “It comes down to a choice.” The video then shows the bleak future without diplomacy: bombs going off, troops at the demilitarized zone. “The future remains to be written.”

The brief summit—originally scheduled for two days—was rife with lofty language from the President about the North Korean leader, who has executed members of his own family to consolidate power. “Well, he is very talented,” Trump said. “Anybody that takes over a situation like he did, at twenty-six years of age, and is able to run it, and run it tough.”

The summit was historic simply because it allowed the socialization of two countries at war, and it “didn’t obviously fly off the rails,” James (Spider) Marks, a retired major general who was a senior intelligence officer on North Korea, told me. But a “Presidential pat on the back does not connote trust. It can start trust-building, and we all should hope that that is the intended outcome.”

The danger is that the new U.S.-North Korean agreement offers no guidelines on how to convert principles into disarmament practice, or even of how many arms it covers. The Administration has previously thrown in all of North Korea’s intercontinental missiles and its biological and chemical weapons. “Unfortunately, it is still unclear whether the two sides are on the same page about definitions and the pace, and the sequencing of many steps involved in the complete ‘denuclearization’ of the Korean Peninsula,” Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a statement. North Korea has yet to provide a full rundown of its deadliest weapons; the agreement offers no details on timing or process. It also does not mention who will oversee the three big steps—the dismantlement of the nuclear arsenal, the verification of that dismantlement, and future inspections. Will part of it be done by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog that has been central to many such inspections? Or will the United States claim most or all of the roles? The I.A.E.A has already said it is gearing up to participate.

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Otto Warmbier sacrificed

The most conspicuous item missing from the statement was the issue of human rights, which has been central to U.S. policy for decades. Tens of thousands of political prisoners are believed to be held by Kim’s regime, according to human-rights groups. The American Otto Warmbier died within days of his release from a North Korean prison because of alleged torture that left him brain-damaged. Trump—who called his North Korean counterpart “very smart” and “talented”—was repeatedly pressed on whether he brought it up. The President actually cited Warmbier as the pivot to diplomacy. “Otto did not die in vain,” he said at a press conference before leaving Singapore. “I think, without Otto, this would not have happened.”

Sherman was outraged. “The President’s comments on human rights—that those in labor camps would be winners, that this meeting wouldn’t have happened but for Otto Warmbier’s death, and that Kim was loved by his people and was trustworthy—those comments are not worthy of a President of the United States,” she said.

Others urged separating the issues immediately at hand. “Let’s not roll the Kim regime’s egregious and undeniable human-rights violations into our evaluation of success of the summit,” Marks said. “This is about reducing the clear and present danger of global nuclear annihilation, not human rights.” The irony of the President’s approach, however, is that it exactly mirrors what the Obama Administration did in its diplomacy with Iran, out of which came the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Obama wanted to focus on eliminating Tehran’s deadliest arms program first before taking on other issues, including human rights.

Trump, who claimed that he had not slept for twenty-five hours, basked in the attention of the choreographed summit. But he will face tough questions about how to translate a modest statement into the most robust program anywhere in the world to limit nuclear proliferation as the initiative—to be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—moves forward. Meanwhile, key allies left in the dirt at the G-7 summit over the weekend may be wondering what happens next with them, too.

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Trump took time at the press conference following the summit to again scold Canada, the closest U.S. ally geographically and its second-largest trading partner. A member of NATO, its troops have fought and died alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan. More than twenty-six thousand Canadians fought in the Korean War; more than five hundred were killed. But alliance be damned. The President was infuriated after Prime Minister Trudeau said that Canada would not be “pushed around” by the United States. “He learned that’s going to cost a lot of money for the people of Canada,” Trump told reporters in Singapore. “He learned.” After the Singapore summit, the temperamental President seems to be on better terms with a North Korean despot than a Canadian democrat.

This post has been updated.

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Foreign Policy: Donald Trump impulsively blows up the North Korea Summit in Singapore


May 25, 2018

Foreign Policy: Donald Trump impulsively blows up the North Korea Summit in Singapore

 https://www.washingtonpost.com

President Trump. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
May 24 at 2:23 PM
 

 

PRESIDENT TRUMP’S abrupt cancellation of a summit with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un had the same air of hasty, strategy-free improvisation that has characterized his handling of the diplomatic opening all along. Mr. Trump agreed to the summit in March without requiring any action by the North Korean ruler, or even a clear statement of his intentions. He then proceeded to hype the wildly unrealistic possibility that the regime would quickly disarm; he minted a medal to commemorate the upcoming meeting and encouraged talk that he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.

On Thursday, in apparent response to hyperbolic but entirely unsurprising comments by a North Korean official, Mr. Trump released a loosely worded letter canceling the summit because of the “tremendous anger and open hostility” in the statement. The announcement blindsided the government of South Korea, which had brokered the talks: “We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means,” a spokesman said. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump blurted at a White House appearance that “it’s possible” the summit could still take place on the planned date of June 12, while simultaneously warning that “our military . . . is ready if necessary.”

Never has such chaos attended the public behavior of a U.S. President on a matter of such gravity: Both Mr. Trump and the North Koreans alluded to the possibility of nuclear war. Appearing before Congress, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was unable to offer an answer when asked what the U.S. strategy would now be. North Korea, meanwhile, had hours earlier made a show of blowing up mountain tunnels it has used to conduct nuclear tests — an action suggesting that until Mr. Trump’s statement, it remained willing to move forward.

White House officials said the North Korean statement that Mr. Trump reacted to was merely the last straw in a series of negative actions. North Korea canceled a planned meeting with South Korea last week and failed to answer U.S. inquiries about summit planning. But Pyongyang was responding, at least in part, to U.S. rhetoric. Mr. Trump and other officials had alluded to the history of Libya, which gave up its nuclear program and later was subjected to a NATO bombing campaign that led to the overthrow and murder of ruler Maummar Gaddafi. North Korea could “end like the Libya model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal,” Vice President Pence said Monday. That led Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui to deride Mr. Pence as “ignorant and stupid” and threaten a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” — overheated rhetoric that is familiar to anyone who has studied the North Korean regime.

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Mr. Trump has not. On the contrary, until this week he appeared oblivious to increasingly clear indications that Mr. Kim had no intention of quickly surrendering his nuclear arsenal. Rather, North Korea appeared interested only in a multistage process in which denuclearization would be a vague and long-term goal, and the regime would be rewarded for every step forward. That is how previous deals with North Korea have been structured. Such a process carries obvious risks, but the administration should have been willing to carefully explore what Mr. Kim was prepared to do. Instead Mr. Trump has impulsively blown up the process — with potential consequences that he and his administration have not bothered to calculate.