The president announced he would be a no-show at next month’s planned meeting after North Korea showed “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.” Trump was referring to recent comments by North Korean officials. The latest called Vice President Pence “ignorant and stupid.” Pence is neither, but it was not smart of him to advance Libya as the model for North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. Not only did Libya essentially capitulate to Western demands, but its leader, Moammar Gaddafi, lost both his regime and his life.
For North Korea, Libya teaches all the wrong lessons. Denuclearization can be fatal. Instead, do as you have done in the past. Negotiate and negotiate. Get what you can and then break the deal. Trump, oblivious to this history, plunged right in, letting North Korea instantly elevate negotiations to the highest level and, in the process, ignoring China. Not only that, but he effectively conducted his preliminary talks via Twitter.
Trump was right not to take any guff from Pyongyang. It’s true that he had once called Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man” and subtly referred to his being short and fat. He tweeted, “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!” Oh, well, not yet, it appears.
Still, no American president can allow his vice president to be insulted by, in effect, another head of state. It’s true that the crack at Pence was not made by Kim himself, but it was clearly authorized by him. North Korea is not the kind of place where government officials just say what’s on their minds. In recent days, the regime vilified national security director John Bolton, who also commended the Libyan model to Kim. These remarks were made alongside other indications that Kim was cooling on any deal that would entail giving up his nukes.
Trump’s narcissism and his lack of empathy are a hindrance in foreign affairs. He has to put himself in the shoes of his adversaries and that he cannot do. If he could, though, he would know that Kim fears for the very existence of his regime. His nukes are not some sort of security blanket. They are his actual security. This is North Korean dogma and it makes sense. The world does not like them. Its only ally is China which fears the collapse of the regime, the regional chaos that might result and the refugees that might flood across the border. China wants a say about North Korea. Trump is now reminded of that.
Trump is a fool in many ways, but he knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. He was not going to continue to negotiate a deal that looked like he wanted it more than the other guy. He was right to push back from the table for the time being but he was wrong in the first place to plunge into a summit that had not been meticulously planned. Characteristically, his ego got the best of him and he trusted his instincts which he feels are never wrong. It is the conviction of a schlemiel.