Since the moment he agreed on a whim to a summit between himself and Kim Jong Un, President Trump has been almost giddy about the breakthrough he’s about to achieve, even musing about his upcoming Nobel Peace Prize.
But like everything about being president, it’s turning out to be more complicated than Trump understands. Today he’s getting a reminder:
North Korea is rapidly moving the goal posts for next month’s summit between leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump, saying the United States must stop insisting it “unilaterally” abandon its nuclear program and stop talking about a Libya-style solution to the standoff.
The latest warning, delivered by former North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan on Wednesday, fits Pyongyang’s well-established pattern of raising the stakes in negotiations by threatening to walk out if it doesn’t get its way.
This comes just hours after the North Korean regime cast doubt on the planned summit by protesting joint air force drills taking place in South Korea, saying they were ruining the diplomatic mood.
The North Koreans actually have this in common with Trump, who also likes to use threats to walk away as a negotiating tactic. Many years ago Trump reportedly tried to get the George H.W. Bush administration to send him to negotiate arms control with the Soviet Union, saying that his brilliant tactic would be to welcome the Soviet delegation, then shout “F––– you!” and leave the room. The Bush administration for some reason felt that sensitive negotiations should be done by experienced diplomats and not blowhard real-estate developers, so it declined his help.
Back to today: Are these threats from North Korea just gamesmanship? Sure. But they also suggest that the president is getting played, not just by Kim but by some in his own administration.
Threatening to blow up negotiations is a tactic you generally use when you know the other side is powerfully invested in getting to an agreement. That’s the first thing the North Koreans seem to get: As much as they’d like sanctions relief, a thawing of relations with South Korea and an end to threats from the United States, if talks do fall apart they can probably live with the status quo for now.
Trump, on the other hand, has been hyping the possibility of an agreement that results in North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons to an almost absurd degree, given how often these kinds of deals have failed in the past. He clearly wants a “win” he can proclaim as something he accomplished when no other president could. And Kim will use that desire against him.
What does Kim want? Economic assistance and an end to sanctions, obviously. He also wants a summit alongside the leader of the global hegemon, which would grant him enormous prestige. That’s something the United States has withheld from North Korea in the past, but Trump has already granted it. And above all, Kim wants to ensure his own survival and that of his regime.
Which is why most everyone except Trump seems to realize that there is no way Kim is going to give up his nuclear weapons, which he sees — quite rationally — as a guarantee against foreign invasion or a move to depose him.
Here’s where we see how Trump is being played from the other side, most specifically by his new national security adviser, John Bolton. Bolton, who has long advocated that we start bombing North Korea at the earliest possible opportunity, made a point of saying publicly that we should look as a model to the arrangement made with Libya in 2003, in which it gave up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief and a reintegration into the international community.
Which, if you knew nothing about anything, might sound perfectly fine. But to the North Koreans, there’s almost nothing more provocative you could say than bringing up Libya. North Korean officials regularly cite the experience of Libya as precisely the reason they won’t give up their nuclear weapons. Moammar Gaddafi did so, and what happened to him? He was deposed and killed. The same fate befell Saddam Hussein.
Now, Bolton is many things, but stupid and ignorant are not among them. He knew perfectly well how the North Koreans would react if he brought up Libya. And so they did: In a statement by the first vice-minister of foreign affairs, they said the following (forgive the translation; I’m sure it was much more poetic in Korean):
This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.
I cannot suppress indignation at such moves of the U.S., and harbor doubt about the U.S. sincerity for improved DPRK-U.S. relations though sound dialogue and negotiations.
For good measure, they said “we do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward” Bolton. Given his desire for a military strike, it seems at least possible, and perhaps likely, that Bolton is trying to plant the seeds of doubt that will ultimately result in a breakdown of talks, after which he can say to the president, “Well, sir, we tried. But you see how unreasonable they are. We have no choice but to strike now.”
So where does this end up? No one knows for sure, but to begin with, the North Korean threats to abandon the summit are just bluster. The summit will happen, because both Trump and Kim want it to. What’s unlikely to happen, however, is Kim agreeing to give up his nuclear weapons, no matter what the United States offers in exchange. But Trump seems to be the only one who doesn’t realize that.
Which is why it’s entirely possible Trump will make some kind of agreement in which the North Koreans pledges to do something that costs them little — curtailing future missile tests, leaving the size of their arsenal where it is now — and which they might renege on anyway, just so he can say he got a win and tell everyone he’s the greatest negotiator in history. North Korea, like everyone else in the world, is realizing not just that this isn’t true, but also that Trump actually believes it — and that as a result, it won’t be that hard to manipulate him.