Instead of writing something clever or insightful this morning about Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un’s romantic getaway to Hanoi, I’m just going to drop this here.
So, Trump didn’t lose the farm in Singapore yesterday, but he did leave the summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un a few prize cows short.
When I wrote about the Trump-Kim summit last month, it was on the heels of the news that Trump had backed out of the planned meeting after raising impossible-to-meet expectations of what he could accomplish. Having dealt himself an incredibly weak hand, Trump announced he would walk.
And then he came slinking back to the table just eight days later, having discarded demands for rapid North Korean denuclearization and relaxing the US posture of “maximum pressure” on the Kim regime. With expectations lowered to, in the president’s own words, a more modest “getting-to-know-you meeting, plus,” the summit was back on.
Now that it’s over, how what did the meeting produce? Let’s just say that Donald Trump, self-proclaimed master negotiator and deal maker, gave away a lot more than he got. Actually, that doesn’t quite capture it. Trump made all the concessions and got nothing new in return. Let’s break it down:
What did Trump get in exchange for all of these giveaways? A joint communique repeating the vague pledge to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” which had been made back in April. That, and a stated desire to work toward warmer relations. And that’s all.
No clarification of what each side means by denuclearization. No mention of timetables for moving forward. No mention of verification.
And not a single concession from Kim Jong Un. In fact nearly identical pledges were made by the North Korean regime back in 2005 and 1993. You see how closely those were honored.
Don’t get me wrong, granting unilateral concessions to your counterpart is an absolutely legitimate negotiating strategy, especially if the intention is to build goodwill and trust that will lead, down to road, to the other side reciprocating with some compromises of its own. But nothing in the long history of US-North Korea diplomacy leads me to believe such compromise will be forthcoming.
So in the end, all Donald Trump may have achieved in Singapore was a dramatic photo op. Of course, maybe that’s what he really wanted.
On North Korea, impulsiveness, ignorance, towering ego, and a deeply insecure man’s weakness for flattery have led President Trump into a trap of his own making. It remains to be seen how he, and by extension the United States, gets out of it.
Writer David Frum describes the saga of the Trump-Kim Summit as a drama unfolding in multiple acts:
Act I: Trump impulsively agrees to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Perhaps unaware that the North Koreans have sought such a summit meeting for decades, Trump boasts that he has extracted a major concession.
Act II: Trump gradually comes to appreciate that he has been duped. To prove that he’s a winner, not a fool, he begins to oversell the summit, promising that the denuclearization of North Korea is at hand.
Act III: The North Koreans issue a public statement refuting Trump’s boasts. No, they will not denuclearize. And oh, by the way, it’s Trump who must pay tribute to them, not the other way around: If he wants his summit, he should cancel joint U.S.-South Korean exercises.
We’re in Act IV right now—and Act V has yet to be written.
As Frum writes, it was South Korean President Mood Jae-in that put the idea into Trump’s head, which he then leaped to make his own. And Kim Jong Un has reaped the rewards: an offer of a face-to-face meeting with the US president made without preconditions; de facto recognition as a nuclear equal; and leverage over a president who “Throughout his career … has coped with failure by brazenly misrepresenting failure as success.”
Kim has made clear that the expectations created by Trump – that North Korea will agree to complete and independently verifiable denuclearization – are never, ever, going to happen. So what crumbs will Trump actually accept in order to try to spin failure into something more than what it is? An end to North Korean nuclear testing? Kim has already offered that. After all, having successfully developed their weapons, actual tests are no longer necessary to continue to build out North Korea’s arsenal.
And more importantly, what will Trump give up in order to walk away a “winner” from the summit scheduled for June 12 in Singapore? An end to sanctions? An end to US-South Korean military exercises, something North Korea has wanted for decades? An announcement of partial withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula? A promise of a complete withdrawal?
While he may finally be recognizing the enormity of what’s at stake in these talks, I suspect Trump himself has no idea. Nor does he appear inclined to try to figure it out:
With just one month until a scheduled sit-down with North Korea’s leader, President Donald Trump hasn’t set aside much time to prepare for meeting with Kim Jong Un, a stark contrast to the approach of past presidents.
“He doesn’t think he needs to,” said a senior administration official familiar with the President’s preparation. Aides plan to squeeze in time for Trump to learn more about Kim’s psychology and strategize on ways to respond to offers Kim may make in person, but so far a detailed plan hasn’t been laid out for getting Trump ready for the summit.
And this is a problem, because even a seasoned, skilled diplomat would have a hard time playing the cards that Trump has dealt himself. Of course Trump is neither of those things. And having walked away from the nuclear agreement with Iran, which in all honesty offered the same basic deal on the table with Kim, significant economic benefits in exchange for giving up nuclear ambitions, Trump has made it all the more difficult to come out of a North Korean summit a winner.
While President Trump’s bombastic and alliterative threats against North Korea appear to be credibility-free bloviating, and North Korea’s are specific enough to be worrying even if doubt remains about their capability, there’s one player in this escalating exchange of warnings who seems to really understand how its done.
That would be China.
The marker was laid down in an editorial published yesterday in China’s state-run newspaper the Global Times:
[I]f North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.
I will admit answering with decided skepticism when others have asked me whether I think China would enter a new Korean War on the side of Pyongyang. But as in so much of international affairs, context and circumstance matter.
As much as China might want to shake up the East Asian regional order to tilt the balance away from the United States and more in its favor, when it comes to the Korean Peninsula, China is a decidedly status quo power.
As national security analyst John Schindler reminds us in his latest column at the Observer:
Beijing regards Pyongyang as a troublesome client whose antics cause annoyances and worse. However, for Beijing, the continuing existence of North Korea—as long as they don’t cause an atomic holocaust in Northeast Asia—is better than all the other options. A bumptious client state across the Yalu river beats having a united Republic of Korea, a close U.S. ally, on China’s border.
Hence the very clear warning issued to both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
Kim is on notice that if he starts something he’s on his own. China will not have his back. And Trump is on notice that China will go to war, just like it did in 1950, to ensure the survival of its client if the US makes the first move unprovoked.
The threats are in. I know which one I believe.