President Donald Trump torpedoed the summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in a letter he dictated that was virtually incoherent.
The question now is whether the shoddy, impulsive, neck-snapping reversals of the White House will spark a new round of threats and a new crisis, or whether the opening that had seemed so promising can be continued in other ways.
Trump astounded the established diplomatic corps when he suddenly announced that he would meet with the North Korean leader in a summit. I defended Trump against the punditry, arguing that it is always better to talk than to issue threats, to find areas of common ground rather than prepare targets for attack. The summit, Trump said, would seek to get North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions and, presumably, security guarantees.
North Korea made a series of gestures designed to build confidence. It released three American prisoners, which Trump called a “beautiful gesture” in his letter calling off the summit. It pledged that it would halt nuclear and missile tests. On the very day Trump pulled the plug on the summit, North Korea invited foreign journalists to witness the blowing up of its nuclear weapons testing site.
Yet from the beginning, the exchange seemed unreal. Trump claimed that the North Korean leader had agreed to complete denuclearization. Most experts believed that North Korea might agree to staged levels of arms control, but that it would never give up its nuclear weapons — seen as vital to its survival — totally.
Yet even as Trump was minting a coin to celebrate the “historic” summit and beginning a campaign to get the Nobel Peace Prize, his bellicose advisers were detonating land mines.
National security adviser John Bolton, who had advocated attacking North Korea, suggested that the U.S. would follow the “Libyan model” with North Korea. Bolton argued that he meant the agreement whereby Muammar Gaddafi gave over all of his nuclear materials (Libya did not have a nuclear weapons arsenal) without any incentives. But Bolton is no one’s fool. He knew that what happened next was Gaddafi faced internal upheaval, the U.S. and European allies intervened for “humanitarian reasons,” bombing Libya, and Gaddafi ended up being captured and murdered.
Not surprisingly, the North Koreans were angered by the notion that this “model” would be applied to them. They cancelled a preparatory meeting in protest. Then Vice President Mike Pence announced that if the North Koreans didn’t make a deal with the U.S., Kim could meet the same fate as Gaddafi. That prompted North Korean officials to call him a “political dummy.”
Saying that they would not “beg the U.S. for dialogue,” Choe Son Hui, the vice foreign minister, unleashed hot rhetoric of her own, asking whether the U.S. “will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at a nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”
That rhetoric led Trump to cancel the meeting. It is hard to conclude anything but that Bolton and Pence were working to sabotage the meeting that Trump was trumpeting.
Trump’s letter reflects the administration’s confused approach. Trump states he appreciates “your time, patience and effort” in relation to the summit. He says there was a “wonderful dialogue” building between him and the North Korean leader, and the only “dialogue that matters.” He thanks Kim for releasing the hostages. And suggests that if Kim just would “call me or write,” the summit might be back on.
Trump also says he is pulling the plug because of “the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.” He scorns their nuclear capabilities, reminding them that “ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
Trump’s action leaves all embarrassed. Trump suggests that the Chinese were behind Kim’s harsher line. The South Korean president said he didn’t know what to make of the president’s action.
The danger is, of course, that the angry rhetoric and impulsive actions will lead to insults, threats and rising war fears and tensions. To forestall that, it is vital for U.S. allies to act, to support the South Korean president’s opening to the North, and to encourage the North Koreans to continue their pledge to end missile and nuclear weapons testing.
From the U.S., this is a time when citizen diplomacy might step in. Ministers and citizen delegations should seek to go to North Korea. We should explore whether exchange programs can be established to help open up the closed kingdom. We should see if citizen delegations could explore what the North Koreans would see as a sensible set of negotiations.
North Korea’s leader clearly is looking for a way to get out from under sanctions and to open up better relations with the world. Trump’s demand for complete and instant disarmament was never very realistic. But we needn’t return to the brink of war and the exchange of threats.
It is time to build not on the failure of the summit, but on the halting successes of the efforts to get North Korea to stop testing, to stop threatening and to begin opening up.