The biggest, riskiest diplomatic trip of his presidency—the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—is set to take place next month, and Donald Trump shows no signs of comprehending the issues or interests at stake.
Two statements from last week should have set off alarm bells that the president is not remotely ready for prime time.
The first came on Thursday, during a rambling, campaign rally–like speech in Ohio. At one point, Trump mentioned his recently reached trade deal with South Korea, saying, “I may hold it up until after a deal is made with North Korea. You know why? Because it’s a very strong card. And I want to make sure everyone is treated fairly.”
Within a few hours, aides to South Korean President Moon Jae-in were seeking clarification on the statement, working through various channels to understand Trump’s “true intentions.” Good luck on that.
I’ve sought some clarification myself, to no avail. The remark was either utterly incoherent or a terrible blunder. The former—yet another instance of Trump’s incoherence—is the likelier explanation. It’s not at all clear why Trump should hold up a trade deal with South Korea, pending the results of nuclear talks with North Korea. The two have little or nothing to do with each other.
But impolitic incompetence should never be dismissed as a source of confusion. Moon will be meeting with Kim—another historic first—on April 27 at Peace House, near the North-South border. It is expected that their meeting will tee up the issues, and to some degree set the agenda, for Kim’s meeting with Trump a few weeks later. Trump’s relations with Moon are rife with tensions. Trump has harshly criticized Seoul for fair-trade violations (and is said to see the new trade deal as an imperfect solution); he often grumbles that the South Koreans should pay more for their own defense and has threatened to withdraw U.S. forces from the region if they don’t—thus arousing fears, in South Korea and Japan, that Trump might do just that in exchange for a promise by North Korea to freeze or cut back its nuclear arsenal.
Trump’s remark in Ohio could be read as a threat to Moon: Push Kim hard on his nuclear weapons, maybe even get him to agree to dismantle them in advance of the U.S. summit—do the heavy lifting for us—or forget about the new trade deal.
Viewed in this light, there are three things wrong with Trump’s statement. First, as a general rule of bargaining (and the putative author of The Art of the Deal should know this), if you have “a very strong card” going into a negotiation, you shouldn’t announce the fact publicly—otherwise your adversary will minimize its importance or maneuver around it ahead of time.
Second, the new trade deal will correct some imbalances that hurt the United States; Moon agreed to it as a diplomatic concession in advance of the talks with Kim; the deal itself was the result of Trump’s leverage. Trump would gain no additional leverage from calling off the deal. If anything, calling it off would help South Korea—unless a cancellation prompted Trump to launch a trade war on Seoul. But if he did that, he would demolish the veneer of allied unity—and thus diminish his bargaining power—at his summit with Kim.
Which leads to the third thing wrong with Trump’s remark. Kim’s father and grandfather, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, the previous leaders of North Korea, were masters at playing their stronger foes off one another. Trump is giving the new young leader a wide opening to play the same game.
Which leads to the second statement from last week that casts a gloomy light on the impending summit. It was issued on Tuesday, in the wake of the secret meeting in Beijing between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and was attributed to Kim by China’s official press service:
If South Korea and the United States respond with good will to our efforts and create an atmosphere of peace and stability, and take phased, synchronized measures to achieve peace, the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula can reach resolution.
To longtime Korea-watchers, these are familiar North Korean slogans that don’t quite mean what they seem. For instance, to say that “the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula” might “reach resolution” doesn’t necessarily mean that North Korea will denuclearize. It could mean simply that “the issue” will “reach resolution,” perhaps in some way that allows North Korea to keep some nukes.
But the key phrase here is “phased, synchronized measures to achieve peace.” Achieving “peace,” in Pyongyang argot, means ending the Korean War—which settled into an armistice in 1953, but technically is still going on. And the end of the Korean War means the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from South Korea—something that no American president could accept, unless maybe he doesn’t understand what “peace” means in the Korean context.
True, North Koreans have struck deals in the past that fall short of fulfilling this ultimate fantasy. For instance, in the 1994 Agreed Framework with the Clinton administration, they agreed to freeze their plutonium program in exchange for energy assistance and the supply of two light-water reactors, which could be used only for electrical power. An annex to that deal called for further steps toward formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang. The deal fell apart after Congress refused to fund the light-water reactors, which prompted North Korea to begin a covert uranium-enrichment program—not a violation of the deal but certainly an end run, which prompted President George W. Bush, who wasn’t keen on the deal anyway, to cancel it soon after he took office in 2001.
Does Trump have any idea what sorts of “phased, synchronized measures” he would like North Korea to take—and what sorts of measures he would permit the United States to take at the same time? For example, as a first step, North Korea could extend its freeze on nuclear testing and open up its production and test sites to international inspection—with the United States simultaneously removing some sanctions. What would be the second, third, and fourth synchronized measures, and what would be the ultimate goal—the finishing line of these steps? These are issues to be discussed by experts, debated in National Security Council meetings, and decided very carefully by the president and his top advisers. If officials at the State Department, the Pentagon, and the NSC aren’t already well into this project, they’re starting way too late.
It’s also worth noting that Trump’s incoming national security adviser, John Bolton, has spoken out against the whole concept of phased, synchronized measures, demanding that Kim dismantle his nuclear arsenal, all at once, and urging the United States to launch a first strike if he refuses. Will he offer Trump the same advice, now that he’s off Fox News and inside the White House? Will Trump listen? And who’s still around to offer countervailing advice?
Kim Jong-un will come to both negotiations—the one with Moon near the DMZ and the one with Trump at a location not yet determined—with a goal, an agenda, and a bag of bargaining tactics. He may also have sought and won consent for his approach (though there’s no way of knowing this) during his meeting in Beijing with Xi. Unless something dramatic happens in the next few weeks, Trump will arrive at the summit with no firm grip on a strategy or tactics—and wavering support from, and for, his allies. He may come instead with the cloak of an unearned self-confidence that he can prevail with a deal through his charisma and instincts. For this kind of deal, that won’t be enough.