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Trump Plays Hard to Get

This is probably not the end of North Korea nuclear talks.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

After weeks of will-he-won’t-he, and hours after North Korea announced it had destroyed tunnels at its nuclear test site at Pyungge-ri, President Donald Trump Thursday morning cancelled his long-anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The meeting, which was to be held in Singapore on June 12, had been agreed to on the spur of the moment by Trump in March. Now, the future of efforts to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons is up in the air. The reality is that Kim is in a better regional and global position today than he was when Trump took office, and the only path for the United States is to return to the negotiating table, perhaps this time with technical experts from both governments to do the hard work required for any successful negotiation.

It is also not clear that the idea of the summit is dead. Trump was careful, in his remarkable and perhaps jarringly polite letter to “Chairman Kim,” to say that he “feel[s] it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long planned meeting.” And it has been clear that the historic nature of the summit, and the chance to be on every TV screen in the world, was a major draw for Trump, even as his aides were reportedly worried that he was not doing the homework necessary to drive a good bargain for the United States. This lure may be why Trump has left the door open to a new date, if and when North Korea comes around. Trump’s letter in fact could be read as a relatively transparent attempt to play hard to get, telling Kim he wants the summit more than Trump does. But make no mistake: Trump wants the meeting to happen very badly, and may well be back.

Trump wrote a letter to Kim cancelling the summit after North Korean officials—but notably not Kim himself—took aim over the last week at both National Security Advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence. Both had suggested that the process where Libya eliminated its nuclear capabilities in 2003 would be a good model for North Korean denuclearization. Libya’s supreme leader Muammar Qaddafi agreed to give up its nascent and still-in-the-box uranium enrichment program in exchange for security guarantees. Qaddafi was overthrown and brutally murdered in 2011 in a civil war during which the U.S. and NATO provided air support to the opposition. There is grisly photo evidence of his death, and Libya remains an active war zone to this day.    

For this and many other reasons, North Korea flatly rejected the comparison to Qaddafi and the model of Libya. But this is not all about Libya. North Korean officials also took aim at Bolton, who was key to killing the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, and who was a cheerleader for North Korean regime change during and ever since the George W. Bush administration. On the one hand, Kim was trying to sweet talk Trump into a softer position on denuclearization by holding out the summit—and the chance to be on every TV screen in the world—and at the same time taking aim at the voices inside the administration that were pushing for rapid denuclearization in the North with no reciprocal steps by the United States until the entire process was completed. 

This bad-cop-good-cop process appeared to be working, as just one day before his decisions to cancel the June 12 meeting, Trump gave an interview to Fox News where he appeared to soften the long-standing demand that North Korea agree and implement a rapid denuclearization before the United States provided any benefits to Pyongyang. 

North Korea has been seeking several things from an ongoing charm offensive, launched just this year. It has wanted to capitalize on its nuclear and missile advances by seeking acceptance as a nuclear state on par with the United States (hence the summit); to play the role of peacemaker to advance its relations with South Korea (hence the North-South summit in late April); and to paint the United States as the more unstable or bellicose party, to make itself seem more reasonable in comparison.  In all three things, North Korea has made progress. South Korean decision-makers now fear that American actions could risk a war as much as they fear those by North Korea, Kim’s status has been boosted by Trump’s treatment and rhetoric—the American president called him honorable and trustworthy just this month—and now it seems the United States (not North Korea) has just pulled the plug on one of the most historic meetings ever.

It is more likely than not that the president and Kim will eventually meet. Both want the summit, for different reasons, too much to give it up over a few insults. Kim continues to seek status and drive a wedge between America and South Korea, and the lure of the summit remains a viable tool for him to achieve both aims. Now it is the United States, and particularly Donald Trump, who has to decide what he wants.  

As was true from the start of the Trump administration, there is no military solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. No preventive military attacks can eliminate it, and any bloody nose strike to convince North Korea not to use it would provoke a response and risk millions of lives. So, the only viable way ahead for the United States and our allies is a dual strategy of deterrence and engagement. North Korea knows—and must be reminded—that any use of their nuclear weapons would result in their destruction. That has been American policy since North Korea first got nuclear weapons back in the early 1990s. The only way to convince North Korea to ditch their nuclear weapons is to put in place a sustained, diplomatic, phased process that freezes, caps, and eventually eliminates their nuclear stock and long-range missiles in exchange for a sequenced set of steps by the United States and South Korea. Those steps would involve engaging the North, negotiating a permanent peace treaty, and providing North Korea with the economic development and opportunities that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently told Kim Jong Un the North Korean people “so richly deserve.”