The Nobel committee will presumably be disappointed, but President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un should stay canceled.
The meeting was much more likely to serve Kim’s interests rather than ours, and could well have begun the unraveling of the pressure campaign that is our most reliable point of leverage against the regime. The past week has shown that the North Koreans aren’t to be underestimated — something that is easy to forget because the regime is not just heinous and evil, but ridiculous. Pyongyang managed to wrap the president around the axle on “the Libyan model” and got him to go wobbly on rapid and complete denuclearization with just a few pointed statements.
The Hermit Kingdom can barely feed its people and can’t keep its lights on, but it is good at this. Its existence literally depends on its shrewd diplomatic gamesmanship with the West, winning concessions that give it an economic lifeline while still preserving and advancing its weapons systems. While Trump imagined himself doing what no president has before — solving the conflict on the Korean Peninsula — the North Koreans surely believed they could get Trump to do what other presidents have done before — give it a favorable deal in the hopes of solving the conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Although the North Koreans must worry about the “madman” theory of Trump, they probably also considered him in some respects an easy mark. His weakness is obviously his susceptibility to flattery and his self-image as the world’s best deal-maker. Throw in an allergy to details and the North Koreans would have had plenty of material to work with.
They had early success in starting a negotiation over a negotiation that pushed Trump, at least momentarily, to soften the core U.S. demand for swift denuclearization. But the president showed he has his limits, or at least wants to re-establish leverage, with his starkly worded letter canceling the summit.
The missive is characteristically Trumpian. It’s informal — telling Kim not to hesitate to call or write — and includes a threat not so subtly wrapped in a hope for peace: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” The letter leaves open the possibility for a summit still happening, and the president underlined that in his public remarks. It must be difficult to give up on the prospective signature foreign policy triumph of his presidency. Yet Trump would be better-served swearing off the idea of a high-stakes, mediagenic tete-a-tete leading to a fundamental breakthrough.
There’s every reason to think that the North Koreans want the on-and-off summit, whatever their bombast at the moment. If nothing else, it’s a prestige boost to Kim. And then there’s possible strategic benefits of a good meeting. Kim would presumably be deferential to Trump and tell him what he wants to hear in the hopes of a warm embrace and encouraging words at summit’s end. If a meeting went well, South Korea would push to send humanitarian relief to the North and begin economic projects with Pyongyang. We would be hard-pressed to deny the South, and then the policy of maximum pressure would be on the way to steadily loosening pressure. If this isn’t their ultimate goal, the North Koreans have learned nothing from the past 30 years.
There’s always the very remote chance that the North is willing to give up its nuclear weapons. If so, let the North Koreans demonstrate their good faith and their new strategic orientation during extensive low-level talks building up to a high-profile meeting. In the meantime, maximum pressure should continue and ramp up. Trump loves high drama and believes he can size up anyone across the negotiating table. That makes a summit alluring to him, but he’d be better off playing a round of golf.