War Stories

North Korea Is Getting the Deal of the Century

Trump’s bargaining position with Kim Jong-un is unbelievably weak.

A public signboard welcomes the upcoming summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un.
A public signboard welcomes the upcoming summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, near the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Wednesday.
Linh Pham/Getty Images

Judging from his negotiating stance with North Korea, President Donald Trump has either forgotten much of his best-selling book, The Art of the Deal, or, as his ghostwriter Tony Schwartz has claimed, he had very little to do with writing it. Trump is holding his second summit with Chairman Kim Jong-un next week, yet his bargaining stance going into the talks is, by his own criteria, appallingly weak.

In The Art of the Deal, Trump’s “style of deal-making” is described as follows: “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”

And yet, in one of the many digressions at his Friday press conference, Trump said, of when North Korea might finally commit to denuclearization, “I’m in no rush for speed. We just don’t want testing.” Or, to translate his clipped remarks into plain English: As long as Kim maintains his moratorium on testing missiles or nuclear devices (which he put in effect five months before the first summit), he can take as long as he wants to disarm the weapons he already has.

Not a high aim, and not pushing in the slightest.

At the same press conference, Trump didn’t exactly push North Korea’s two biggest allies to enforce sanctions more strictly, either. “China, Russia, on the border,” he said, “have really been at least partially living up to what they’re supposed to be doing. And that’s OK.”

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping must be trembling in their boots.

Trump’s book also contains this bit of wisdom: “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.” He’s right, of course. Yet from the moment he sat down with Kim in Singapore, back in June, Trump has been practically begging for a deal—a place in the history books, even a Nobel Peace Prize, for putting a formal end to the 69-year-old Korean War, with little care for the terms of such a peace or what it might entail for the U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan.

Ordinarily, one would hope that the secretary of state could help the president out of such a deep hole, but Trump’s top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, is a pretty bad bargainer himself.

In a Feb. 13 interview with CBS, Pompeo was asked why the administration expects Iran to satisfy a dozen preconditions before the United States even starts negotiating a new nuclear deal, whereas North Korea gets to sit down with the president—twice—with no preconditions.

Pompeo replied, “We’ve made very clear that these situations are very different. We take each of them where we find them. North Korea today has weapons, nuclear weapons, capable of reaching the United States of America. This is a threat that President Trump said we needed to take on now and take on immediately.”

In other words, Pompeo was telling the rest of the world: If you have nuclear weapons, the president will talk with you, treat you with respect, even say the two of you “fell in love” if you write him some “beautiful letters.” But if you abandon your efforts to build nuclear weapons, then allow foreign inspectors make sure you don’t try again, Trump will pressure you into bankruptcy, make friends with your worst enemies, and threaten to wage war on you.

The clear lesson for all nuclear wannabes with a gripe toward America or its allies: Build or buy a small arsenal of nukes as quickly as possible, and don’t stop to smile or shake hands with anyone until you do.

Pompeo also supplied further ammunition for those in the world—foes and former friends—who regard the United States, or at least the current administration, as a pit of hypocrisy. “Remember, too,” he said, “North Korea behaves very differently” from Iran. “They’re not destabilizing Yemen. They’re not destabilizing Syria. They’re not conducting enormous assassination campaigns. These countries’ behaviors are different, therefore the way America is approaching resolving this.”

Well, it would be quite a feat for North Korea to destabilize Yemen or Syria from a distance of 5,000 miles. But Kim and his forefathers have thrown a fair bit of fire at South Korea, assassinated a relative (Kim’s half-brother) on foreign soil, and tortured an American citizen after unjustly tossing him in prison. Pompeo’s good friends, the Saudis, have also done a lot to destabilize Yemen. “Behaviors” have nothing to do with it. Otherwise, Trump wouldn’t be treating Kim, one of the world’s most murderous dictators, as a fine fellow and good friend.

At his press conference, Trump said, “A lot was done in the first summit” with Kim, adding, “We hope we’re going to be very much equally as successful” at the second summit. Actually, very little was accomplished at the first summit. Kim agreed “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—a meaningless pledge, given the lack of a timetable or definition of denuclearization. In exchange, Trump agreed to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, not just as a good-faith gesture, but because they cost too much.

U.S. and North Korean diplomats have been meeting, off and on, ever since the Singapore summit, but they haven’t accomplished anything, mainly because the North Koreans know—Trump told them—that they don’t have to.

It is, and always has been, foolish to demand that the North Koreans dismantle their nuclear program. Nukes are their only assets on the world stage, their only bargaining chip for luring aid and investment, their only deterrent to a foreign attack. As Trump’s own top intelligence officials have testified, there is virtually no chance Kim will throw that chip away, regardless of the return, because he regards it as “critical to regime survival.”

There are some worthy, feasible goals to work toward in talks with North Korea, including a reduction of its nuclear stockpile, a ban on continued production as well as testing of missiles and nuclear devices, and relaxed North-South tensions. But Kim must do three things before any of this can go too far forward: Present an itemized list of all his nuclear facilities, allow foreign official to inspect them, and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (North Korea signed the NPT in 1985 but abrogated it in 2003.) After doing that, much is possible: diplomatic relations, aid, investment, and more.

One problem is, Trump has no idea how long this road will take to plow and pave. At his press conference, he said, “North Korea and Chairman Kim have a tremendous potential as an economic force, economic power. Their location between South Korea and then Russia and China—right smack in the middle—is phenomenal. And we think that they have a great chance for tremendous economic prosperity in the future.”

In case you need further evidence than he’s already provided in his presidency, this remark proves that businessmen don’t necessarily know squat about economics. “Location, location, location” might mean a lot in New York real estate, but being “right smack in the middle” of South Korea, Russia, and China doesn’t get you much in geopolitics. Trump has previously mentioned North Korea’s promising beachfront property, as if he is aching to set up a hotel-casino with the right concessions. He doesn’t seem to grasp the confluence of conditions (political, economic, sociological, cultural) necessary for the development of capitalism—even the sort of colonial capitalism that Trump has in mind. Nor does he understand that, in the interests of his regime’s survival, Kim has no desire to cultivate any of those conditions—or to serve as a colonial subject.

If Kim agrees to extend his suspension of tests, and if he and Trump agree to set up consulates in each other’s capitals, well, this isn’t the stuff of summitry, but it would make for a worthwhile meeting. If they agree to more than that, read the fine print carefully.