Trump’s Summit With Kim Jong-Un Was An International Embarrassment
Expectations were not high for President Trump’s second summit with North Korea in Vietnam this week. Of course, it was not for the administration’s lack of stating the opposite. Lofty claims of what Trump would achieve were hurled into the ether in the weeks leading up to the summit. There would be further nuclear plant shutdowns, or an official end to the Korean War, or that each country would set up liaison offices in the others.
Anyone with at least a passing knowledge of US relations with North Korea knew better than to expect anything other than some piecemeal concessions and another vague agreement heavy on pomp and light on details. Still, even this would have been a victory for the administration. Any talks are welcome when it comes to a nuclear-armed rogue state, especially given the reckless talk between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un previously.
In short, this was a perfect opportunity to look presidential and score a win at a time when his former lawyer was providing disastrous testimony corroborating alleged crimes he had undertaken.
It would have been hard for Trump to blow this. And yet he succeeded in doing just that.
How The Trump-Kim Summit Fell Apart
Reports of the summit’s unraveling began late Wednesday, with the summit ending abruptly Thursday. Trump gave a brief press conference in which he indicated that he walked away from the deal because North Korea wanted full sanctions relief in exchange for a shutdown of Yongbyon, its main plutonium-enrichment facility.
Trump did more than that, however. He appeared to be less keen on demands for full denuclearization, the baseline outcome the US and its allies have demanded from North Korea. He also cast doubt on whether North Korea is indeed expanding its nuclear arsenal, something US intelligence agencies have maintained is happening despite the summit in Singapore last year. Lastly, he stated, incredulously, that he believed Mr. Kim’s assertion that he had nothing to do with the death of Otto Warmbier – an American who was fatally tortured while in North Korean custody – despite the fact that a US court held the North Korean government liable for his death.
Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo maintained this was not the end of talks, that both sides are still amicable, and that both sides would regroup and come back to the table soon.
The North Korean government apparently didn’t get that memo. In a briefing late last night North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho contradicted Trump’s account, saying North Korea had requested only partial sanctions relief for a complete dismantling of Yongbyon with verification by American officials. He also did not reiterate the Trump camp’s optimism on further talks, saying “This kind of opportunity may never come again.”
Ripping Off Contractors And Calling It Business Does Not Make Trump A Good Negotiator
It is a sad day when an autocratic regime whose survival is dependent on misinformation sounds more credible than the American president. Yet this is the reality of the Trump era. Trump’s account of events made it clear that he cared only about the ceremony and press a resolution would have brought and then walked away when this was not immediately forthcoming. In doing so, while also rejecting previous intelligence and diplomatic efforts, he showed he cares little for peace when it is not served to him like a well-done steak with ketchup at Mar-a-Lago.
Worse yet, Trump gave Mr. Kim the benefit of the doubt on most everything, once again showing his admiration of brutal dictators over American interests. Trump restricted some American journalists’ access. And in rejecting established American intelligence on North Korea’s arsenal expansion and dismissing Kim’s involvement in an American citizen’s death, he once again bowed in the face of autocracy and turned his back on American values. It is, at this point, a time-honored reverence for Mr. Trump, one he has bestowed upon the likes of Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad-bin-Salman upon his killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and upon Vladimir Putin in the face of his efforts to undermine democracy in the West.
No one would have necessarily blamed Trump for rejecting the offer North Korea stated they put forward in Hanoi. For starters, it would have done little to limit their current arsenal, which they could still use to threaten South Korea and Japan. Such a plan would, on its own, not give much incentive for North Korea to continue to denuclearize. It would have also required a system of constant vigilance and verification, with a method to immediately reimpose sanctions if North Korea was acting in bad faith, something North Korea has not been keen on previously.
The fact that the aforementioned system is a facet of the Iran nuclear deal Trump pulled out of speaks to why no one should be surprised at the fallout in Vietnam. In his hasty retreat back to Washington, Trump is not a master negotiator opting out of the easy compromise in favor of a more lasting agreement. Instead – through his short-sightedness and unwillingness to accept the expertise of his own advisers – Trump has put into question whether he actually comprehends what such an agreement would even look like.
For now, there is little harm done, and it appears both sides will go back to what they were doing before. But for North Korea, this means continuing to quietly expand their arsenal. And any geopolitical change – an economic downturn in North Korea, say, or impeachment proceedings against Trump – may change either side’s willingness to escalate tensions instantly.
Anyone who still believes Trump is prepared to face such challenges, or any others, may have their MAGA hat on too tight.
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