Start with Kim. On Tuesday, his regime announced it was canceling planned talks with South Korea — and might even cancel the upcoming summit with the United States — because of routine joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. Pyongyang followed up a few days later with more of its usual bluster against the “ignorant and incompetent” South. The North also expressed its pique against Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser — “we do not hide our feelings of repugnance towards him.”
Bolton earned the North’s ire by invoking the “Libya model,” whereby North Korea would have to completely dismantle its nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and chemical and biological weapons before receiving any economic benefits. “It is absolutely absurd to dare compare the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], a nuclear weapon state, to Libya which had been at the initial state of nuclear development,” Pyongyang’s statement said, warning that “if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-U.S. summit.”
In other words, Kim was telling Trump: If you want your date with Mr. Nobel, ditch Mr. Bolton. In his response, the president showed how eager he is to earn his Nobel Peace Prize — and with it the establishment recognition that he both craves and disdains.
The Wall Street Journal reported that last week, at South Korea’s instigation, the United States canceled plans to have B-52 bombers — the kind that carry nuclear bombs — participate in the planned air-force exercises. This was a pretty clear signal that when pressed hard, Trump is liable to make concessions. He sent the same message with his bewildering flip-flop on sanctions against ZTE, the Chinese telecom giant. Indeed, North Korea’s demands may well have been made at Chinese prompting after seeing how Trump folded under Chinese pressure.
Trump, eager to please, assured Kim on Thursday: “The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all, when we’re thinking of North Korea. In Libya, we decimated that country.” This was a shocking statement, not because Trump was throwing Bolton under the bus — that’s the kind of behavior one expects from a president who views loyalty as a one-way street — but because it showed that Trump is hopelessly confused.
The “Libya model” that Bolton was talking about was Moammar Gaddafi’s disarmament in 2003-2004 — not his overthrow and death in 2011. Of course, for the North Koreans, those two events are linked: They believe, probably rightly, that the United States would not have bombed Libya in 2011 if Gaddafi had nuclear weapons.
Trump may have inadvertently fanned North Korean fears when he said: “Now that [Libya] model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un is going to be very, very happy.” So Kim will be secure only if he gives up his weapons of mass destruction like Gaddafi did? But if he doesn’t, the United States will decimate his country? That isn’t a message likely to encourage preemptive concessions from Pyongyang, which knows what promises from the United States — and especially from Trump — are worth. Kim, understandably, may be more inclined to rely on his nuclear arsenal for protection, which just last month he called a “powerful treasured sword for defending peace.”
It is nearly impossible to make sense of Trump’s word salad, but if he’s saying that the “Libya model” of disarmament is off the table, what’s the alternative? The only other recent model of nuclear-arms control is the Iran model: Tehran greatly reduced its nuclear infrastructure and froze nuclear development but did not give up its entire program as Libya did. But Trump just pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, calling it the “worst deal” ever. So if he rejects both the Libya model and the Iran model, what does that leave?
Here’s a modest suggestion: Trump should rethink his refusal to study for the summit. The North Koreans have shown themselves to be wily negotiators who repeatedly make commitments they don’t carry out. And Trump? He’s the guy whose dealmaking skills landed him in six corporate bankruptcies.
He should go brush up on his own (ghostwritten) rules of dealmaking: “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.” With Trump now signaling that he wants a denuclearization deal so badly that the details don’t matter much, Kim has good cause to smell blood.