Some say last week’s cancellation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang signaled a breakdown in the U.S.–North Korean disarmament talks, but this misses three much larger points, which go way beyond Korea and speak to the failings of President Trump’s foreign policy as a whole.
First, the talks were never going anywhere to begin with; there is nothing to break down.
Second, the Trump administration’s policy on North Korea is in complete chaos.
Third, the reason it’s in chaos is that Trump himself has no idea that it is in chaos, or that the talks have been moribund from their beginning, or that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is taking him for a ride and everyone knows it, except Trump.
Our story begins on Friday, when Trump tweeted:
This jolted close observers. The day before, Pompeo had hired Steve Biegun, a Ford Motors executive who had worked in George W. Bush’s National Security Council, to be his special envoy to North Korea. The trip was to be their maiden voyage as a team. But then North Korea’s chief negotiator (and former top spy) Kim Yong-chol sent Pompeo a belligerently toned letter, which suggested to the secretary—who persuaded Trump—that a trip would be pointless. Hence Trump’s tweet.
If that had been Trump’s only tweet, it might have been a shrewd move. In past negotiations, North Koreans get cranky as a way of testing their interlocutors; a piss-off note from Trump might have compelled a concession, even if just a superficial one.
But Trump didn’t stop there. He proceeded to blame the lack of progress not on the North Koreans but rather on the Chinese, who, “because of our much tougher Trading stance,” are not “helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were.”
Finally, Trump added:
If Kim had been concerned for a moment that his bluff had been called and that the Americans were about to get tough, Trump’s final tweet allayed his worries—and perhaps made him laugh. It assured Kim that he can continue stalling on disarmament—that he can do almost anything he wants—without facing any punishment because, like other autocrats who have learned the art of dealing with Trump, he’s bamboozled our narcissistic president into thinking that the two of them are friends.
At their June summit in Singapore, Trump and Kim signed a one-page “joint statement,” which Trump hailed as a pledge—he later even called it a “contract”—to “denuclearize” North Korea. In fact, as anyone who has ever read an international communiqué could tell (a group that clearly did not include Trump), it was nothing of the sort.
A few weeks before that summit, Trump tweeted that he was canceling it, in response to a typically nasty North Korean press release—then put it back on the calendar after Pyongyang officials put out a “very nice statement,” as Trump described it. That was no doubt the first sign—reinforced by his latest cancellation with warm regards—that Trump is a pushover.
Not only does Kim seem to know this—so does practically everyone in the Trump administration.
Daniel Sneider, lecturer on Asian studies at Stanford University and a seasoned international journalist, reported this week that U.S. officials who are working this issue have the following aims: to contain Kim so he doesn’t expand his nuclear arsenal, to contain Chinese President Xi Jinping so he keeps enforcing economic sanctions against Kim’s regime; to contain South Korean President Moon Jae-in so he doesn’t rush forth with massive economic projects in the North before Kim makes good on nuclear disarmament, and, most important, to contain their own boss, President Trump, from giving away the store.
At the summit in Singapore, Kim asked Trump to suspend America’s joint military exercises with South Korea, and Trump obliged him—without first consulting South Korea, Japan, or his own secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, who were all surprised by the move. At a press conference today, Mattis said, “We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises.”
Of course, the key words here are “no plans at this time.” Mattis didn’t have plans to suspend the last exercise either. Mattis may have lots of plans; Trump makes the decisions—if he becomes aware of the plans. This may be one reason Mattis is keeping a low profile these days: He doesn’t always want Trump to know precisely what he’s doing.
The same is true of the officials working North Korean policy. Their No. 1 goal, at the moment, is to keep Trump from having another summit with Kim. This is what terrifies them about Trump’s final tweet. (“I look forward to seeing him soon!”) None of these officials, including Pompeo, wanted Pompeo to make the trip to Pyongyang. They knew it would go nowhere, and they knew Trump would infer from the failure that only he could solve the problem by sitting down with his friend Kim and asking him, as a favor, to help break through the logjam.
This is how Trump thinks international politics works. Back in June, when he proposed letting Russia back into the G-8, he explained his thinking: “If Vladimir Putin were sitting next to me at a table … I could say, ‘Would you do me a favor and get out of Syria? Would you do me a favor, would you get out of Ukraine?’ ” Soon after this bizarre remark, Trump held his infamous summit with Putin and, whatever else happened (this remains a mystery), no such favors were granted.
We don’t know what other concessions Trump made in his one-on-one session with Kim in Singapore (or, for that matter, his one-on-one with Putin in Helsinki). Kim claims that Trump said he would sign a peace treaty, ending the 1950–53 Korean War (which has been in a state of cease-fire these past 65 years, but not a formal peace). As a result, ever since, North Korean negotiators have demanded a treaty before they take any steps to dismantle their nuclear arsenal. Pompeo rejected that demand the last time he was in Pyongyang. According to Sneider’s account, Kim Yong-chol, the North Korean negotiator, held up a cellphone and taunted Pompeo, saying, “Why don’t you call your president.”
Before Trump canceled the meeting, Pompeo had planned to offer Kim a deal: The United States would declare a willingness to negotiate a peace treaty if North Korea declared the number and location of its nuclear facilities. Pompeo was going to do this without first having his negotiators test it on their counterparts. U.S. officials now say Kim would have rejected it. He would probably reject any offer, knowing that Trump would respond by offering more.
The way Kim is believed to see it, Trump wants a deal—wants to be seen as a peacemaker—more than anything, especially before the 2020 (or even this year’s midterm) elections. If Trump had read his own book, much less written it, he would know that you should never appear to want a deal too eagerly. He is violating that basic principle.
Pompeo is proving to be a better secretary of state than his hapless predecessor, Rex Tillerson, in the sense that he sees the value of filling his department’s empty slots with competent people and letting them do their work.
But Trump keeps undercutting their efforts, and Pompeo—an ambitious ex-congressman who got this job by kowtowing to Trump’s political needs while he was CIA director and who is too keen to maintain his access to the White House—will go only so far to rein the boss in. He convinced Trump to call off the trip, but he is too cowed to tell Trump that his policy, his understanding of the joint statement, and his view of Kim are all wrong.
Meanwhile, national security adviser John Bolton, who came into office with a clear record of wanting to bomb North Korea (and Iran), seems to be sitting back, waiting for the roses to wilt and for Trump to realize that Kim is not a friend and will never disarm, before pouncing into action.
For the moment, though, Trump’s reality is whatever reality that grooms and praises Trump. He’s not interested in any other reality. He thinks the polls show that he’s popular. He thinks the leaders of the world respect him. At 10:02 on Tuesday morning, he Googled “Trump” and “news,” saw that almost all the entries were unfavorable, inferred that the search algorithm was “RIGGED,” and tweeted that regulations should be considered.
Meanwhile, the real world follows its own dynamics, Trump is steadily divorcing himself from reality, but, as president, he still has an oversize impact on what really happens. That’s the danger. The pity, and potentially the tragedy, is that many of those around him know this and are doing little about it.