Of all the bizarre things that Donald Trump utters — the lies, the garbled words, the fanciful stories — his comments on his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are in a category by themselves.
“I was really tough and so was he, and we went back and forth,” Trump told a crowd of supporters in West Virginia in September. “And then we fell in love, OK? No, really, he wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”
Trump has bragged about these letters, has shown them to foreign visitors. The two leaders seem to enjoy a mutual personality cult that goes beyond even the friendships that Trump has cultivated with other authoritarian leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman.
So, expectations were high that Trump and Kim would consummate their relationship at a second summit in Vietnam and produce something of lasting importance: denuclearization, removal of economic sanctions, a peace declaration, an exchange of liaison offices.
But the two leaders didn’t even stay for the full meeting. They passed up a final lunch together and skipped the statement signing. The food left uneaten was statement enough. What was supposed to be the crowning achievement of Trump’s foreign policy, the one-and-only rationale for his receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, has turned into a high-profile embarrassment.
Trump reportedly went big and failed, and Kim reportedly went small and failed. Trump’s offer: scrap the nukes and the United States will scrap the sanctions. Kim’s bargain: North Korea would close one key part of the nuclear program, the complex at Yongbyon, in exchange for the removal of the latest and most onerous sanctions.
It was, in many ways, just a rehash of previous offers. The United States has been offering North Korea an all-or-nothing choice for many years now, and North Korea has countered with its preference for a step-by-step process. But Pyongyang’s counter-offer was nothing new either, since it had already closed down Yongbyon twice before as part of the Agreed Framework of 1994 and the Six Party Talks of the George W. Bush era.
Could the two leaders have really expected that these gambits would work in Hanoi?
Can love be so blind?
The Real Story
Trump wants a deal. Everyone else on his foreign policy team, however, thinks that a deal with North Korea is a lousy idea.
Prior to joining the administration, National Security Advisor John Bolton never concealed his preference for regime change in North Korea. He has become more circumspect in his rhetoric now that he’s within whispering distance of the president. But he is still doing what he can behind the scenes to ensure the failure of negotiations.
In Hanoi, for instance, Bolton reportedly inserted a demand that North Korea itemize not only on its nuclear facilities but also its biological and chemical weapons. Bolton made the same demand last May in the lead-up to the Singapore summit:
On the denuclearization side of the program, that means all aspects of their nuclear program. Clearly, the ballistic missiles program, as with Iran, with the intention of being a delivery system for nuclear weapons — that’s gotta go. I think we need to look at their chemical and biological weapons programs as well. The president’s going to raise other issues, the Japanese abductees, South Korean citizens who were kidnapped.
This kind of agenda-loading — plus an ominous reference to the “Libyan model” that Bolton knew would rub the North Koreans the wrong way — is exactly how Bolton likes to operate: he appears to be going with the program only to undermine it from within.
After the Hanoi summit self-destructed, Bolton declared it a “success” — because Trump rejected “a bad deal.” What Bolton really meant was: the summit was successful because it didn’t produce any deal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, has been just as consistently hawkish as Bolton about North Korea. Heading into the Vietnam summit, he was careful to contradict his president by asserting that North Korea remained a nuclear threat. And then he also made clear that North Korea would get no sanctions reduction until that threat was “substantially reduced.” Pompeo’s own skepticism that anything could be accomplished in Hanoi shaped his pre-summit predictions that “we may not get everything done this week.”
As for the North Korean side, Kim Jong Un obviously doesn’t feel backed up against a wall. He wasn’t going to accept what the Americans had repeatedly offered in the past (even Pompeo understood this). He might have also thought that Trump was the desperate one — attacked on all sides at home, eager to get a deal to prove his negotiating skills, blinded by his desire for a Nobel prize. In the end, Kim has time on his side. He’s in his thirties and doesn’t have to run for reelection. Trump is in his seventies and his reelection chances are not robust.
As with any lovers’ spat, there are disagreements after the fact about who said what. Trump blamed the North Koreans for insisting on the removal of all sanctions. Then the North Koreans held their own press conference to counter that they had asked only for a partial lifting of sanctions. An unnamed senior State Department official ultimately confirmed the North Korean version.
It’s one thing for the administration to attempt to spin the summit for its own purposes to suggest that the collapse wasn’t the U.S. fault, or that the result was actually a success not a failure. But the spin coming from other quarters has been equally disturbing.
The summit didn’t achieve anything new. But let’s be clear: U.S.-North Korean relations are in a much better place today than 18 months ago.
Pyongyang remains committed to a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. And the United States is scaling back on its war games with South Korea.
Right after the summit ended, the United States announced that it was effectively canceling its large-scale Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises, replacing them with much smaller drills. Trump tweeted:
The reason I do not want military drills with South Korea is to save hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. for which we are not reimbursed. That was my position long before I became President. Also, reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!
The Democratic Party, so afraid before the summit that the president would make unacceptable concessions to North Korea, has reacted venomously to even the paltry olive branch that Trump has extended to Pyongyang.
“Of course the president did give up a great deal by going to that summit, by enhancing Kim Jong Un’s prestige on the world stage, by giving up those military exercises in the last summit and getting nothing for it.,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said on Face the Nation. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum added, “Nobody can be quite so certain, in the future, of our absolute willingness to defend South Korean allies who have received so much less attention from this president than their enemies in the North.”
But wait — South Korea is practically begging the Trump administration to move forward with reconciliation with the North. It agreed to the suspension of the military exercises. This was not the United States abandoning its ally. Only conservative opponents of the Moon Jae-in government are putting up a fuss about the decision on the war games.
Then there is the demand that human rights be part of the negotiations with North Korea. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl writes:
Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea has been revealed as a fantasy. Real progress would require a restart based on patient diplomacy, ramped-up pressure, and a recognition that the problem entails not just nuclear reactors and missile factories, but torture chambers and concentration camps.
I’m sorry, Jackson, but you’re the one stuck in a fantasy. Sure, patient diplomacy is a key element. Pressure, too, plays a part in geopolitics. But bringing human rights to negotiations about a nuclear program is a sure recipe for failure. Delinking security negotiations from human rights concerns has been the sine qua non of arms-control talks since the 1960s. It’s the only way the United States could negotiate with the Soviets in the 1980s and the only way it could achieve a nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015.
Of course, the human rights situation in North Korea is appalling. Of course, the world community must address the labor camps in the country. But linking human rights to the country’s nuclear program is a sure-fire way of ensuring failure on both fronts.
Finally, columnists have gone to town on Trump for his acceptance of Kim Jong Un’s assertion that he knew nothing about Otto Warmbier, the U.S. college student who was detained in the country, spent many months in a coma in a North Korean prison, and was returned home only to die a week later. Kathleen Parker, in the Post, compares Trump’s credulity in this matter to his acquiescence to Vladimir Putin (on Russian involvement in the U.S. elections) and Mohammed bin Salman (on the crown prince’s involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi).
It’s unquestionably stupid for Trump to accept the word of any world leader, particularly an autocrat — just as no world leader should accept Trump’s word.
But these situations are not parallel. There is considerable proof the Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. It would be inconceivable that Mohammed bin Salman did not issue the order to get rid of one of his chief critics.
But there is actually very little information about what caused Otto Warmbier to fall into a coma. A medical examination revealed that there was no obvious signs of trauma, much less torture. It would have been highly unusual for North Korea to torture an American college student. He was not a critic of the North Korean regime. No American detainees had previously been killed. Most had been treated rather respectfully, though often subjected to psychological stresses. Americans are useful bargaining chips. Dead or seriously harmed Americans are not.
In other words, there was no motive for Kim Jong Un to order the torture of an American just for the hell of it. He was no doubt aware of the detention. And he has certainly been ruthless in his actions — like killing his uncle and his half-brother. But those killings were politically motivated. In contrast, the North Koreans seemed eager to release Warmbier to the Trump administration so that they wouldn’t have a dead American on their hands.
The death of Otto Warmbier was indeed a tragedy. And North Korea should provide an account of what really happened to the young man. But his death should not prevent rapprochement between North Korean and the United States.
So, in the end, the bromance between Trump and Kim is icky and deserving of ridicule. But hey, to negotiate with a dictator, sometimes it takes a dictator (or a dictator wannabe). There’s still hope that the United States and North Korea can come to some partial agreement that freezes North Korea’s nuclear capability as is (with the hope of reduction later on) and removes some sanctions from the country so that the North Korean economy can grow (and improve people’s lives). Even the current pause in hostilities is beneficial because it allows Seoul and Pyongyang to move incrementally toward reconciliation.
Let’s hope for a third summit. Let’s hope that the love letters continue. Let’s even follow Moon Jae-in’s lead and praise Donald Trump for his political savviness.
Meanwhile, I’ll hold my nose, keep my eyes averted, and hope for peace.