President Trump looks with disdain on those who get snookered, which is odd since he’s the easiest of marks for anyone with a red carpet and a batch of insincere compliments.
His defensiveness about being “played” was evident when asked about the upcoming meeting with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un. “We’re not going to be played, okay? We’re going to hopefully make a deal, if not that’s fine,” he said on Friday at the White House during a press availability. He claims he is different from all previous presidents. Sadly, that is true — he is more ignorant and susceptible to flattery than any of his predecessors.
Trump shows every sign he is already being suckered. He blessed talks between South and North Korea on formally ending the Korean War and tweeted gleefully the war might be over. Does he know they cannot end it on their own without other parties to the armistice, including China? Chances are he doesn’t know this is part of a stage show designed to lure in an American president blinded by his own need for personal affirmation.
He touted North Korea’s shuttering of a nuclear facility that, it turn out, may have collapsed and become inoperative anyway The danger of a gullible president is never greater than when a manipulative dictator is practiced at telling Western leaders what they want to hear.
Trump seems to be under the misconception that we haven’t gone down this same road with Pyongyang before. Wrong. My colleague Max Boot explains that “the news coverage of the 2000 meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang parallels the euphoria over Friday’s meeting in Panmunjom between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un.” Never have we gotten so far, never have we had so much enthusiasm for a deal, Trump says. Yeah, right. If Trump actually believes this, chances are he is falling for Pyongyang’s act.
While I am quite confident that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton understand that “denuclearization” from North Korea’s perspective means the end of a U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula and dissolution of our security guarantee for Seoul, I’m not at all certain that Trump does. In order to secure a PR victory and garner praise Trump might well sacrifice American interests — and certainly those of allies he thinks have been taking advantage of America’s largesse.
He wouldn’t be the first president to be certain of his genius in obtaining a historic breakthrough. Trump, like his predecessors, fails to grasp the essence of the regime we confront.
For North Korea to end its war on the South, and accept the South as a legitimate, coequal government on the peninsula, would mean abandoning the quest that has legitimized the Kim family’s rule for three generations. The decision would call into question why, exactly, North Korea should hold power at all. It would be system-threatening — a mistake on the scale of the string of blunders by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that doomed the Soviet Union.
And so the North, rather than committing to a legally binding (and potentially destabilizing) peace treaty, is likely to do again what it has gotten away with in previous meetings with the South: dangle aspirational goals in jointly signed, but totally unenforceable, official statements.
Because Trump is the master of believing what he wants to believe and trying to win favor with whomever is sitting in the room with him the real danger is that Trump impulsively accepts frothy promises in exchange for concrete concessions. The North Koreans are practiced at conning U.S. administrations into believing they have found the key to peace on the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, Pyongyang retains a nuclear arsenal that Kim, like his father, believes is essential to the regime’s survival and to reunification of the peninsula on its terms.
I would suggest Trump’s advisers print out directions to him on little cards — “DO NOT BETRAY OUR SECURITY ALLIANCE WITH SEOUL” — but I’m afraid he doesn’t as a rule follow such advice, caps or no caps. Pompeo will have his work cut out for him to avoid a blowup that results in miscalculated aggression by the North, or worse, a rupture in our alliances because Trump has succumbed to flattery.
Trump has been under the impression our Asia allies have been “ripping us off.” Wait until he strikes the “best deal EVER” with Kim Jong Un. Then you’ll really see how America gets ripped off.