President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly cut short their two-day summit Thursday after they were unable to reach an agreement to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
Talks collapsed unexpectedly amid a disagreement about economic sanctions, with the two leaders and their delegations departing their meeting site in Vietnam’s capital without sitting for a planned lunch or participating in a scheduled signing ceremony. ...
For Trump, the surprising turn of events amounted to a diplomatic failure. The president flew 20 hours to Vietnam with hopes of producing demonstrable progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization, building upon his first summit with Kim last summer in Singapore.
This should surprise no one, says Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress. “What happened on North Korea is a textbook case of what not to do,” he says. “He flew all the way on the other side of the world for a deal that wasn’t anywhere close to having the necessary ingredients — let alone being partially baked.” He adds, “It was so poorly planned it makes me think Trump may have wanted an excuse just to get out of town during the damaging and embarrassing [Michael] Cohen testimony."
It seems that virtually no real progress has been made in talks since the Singapore summit. There was no agreement worked out in advance, so the risk of failure was high. And to top it off, it was evident to anyone keeping an eye on American politics (and the North Koreans study this intently) that Trump was desperate for something to call a win, something to divert attention from domestic debacles. Kim didn’t need to give an inch, and Trump wound up with another diplomatic belly-flop.
Perhaps it was all for the best. Before the talks broke down, media reports suggested that Trump had already given up on obtaining a full accounting of North Korea’s nuclear program, the sort of concession that Republicans vilified the Obama administration for in the Iran talks.
“If you have no real plan, no real preparation, and no clearly defined objectives, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that you end up with no deal,” says Jake Sullivan, former director of policy planning at the State Department and former Hillary Clinton adviser. “Trump needs to turn this over to the professionals now, in hopes that the larger effort doesn’t go off the rails."
It’s not clear what happens next. “They need a different diplomatic approach,” former acting CIA director John McLaughlin tells me. “It’s foolish to lay all of this on two leaders without adequate pre-meeting work.” He adds, “It’s also time to get the Chinese, Japanese, and South Korea more directly involved. This is complicated, time-consuming, detail-oriented stuff. It’s not a real estate deal.” He continues, “North Korea’s ultimate goal is to be treated like other states that have acquired nuclear weapons [such as] India or Pakistan. They want to keep enough of their weapons to be a nuclear state, even if they bargain away some of the peripheral elements of the program.” Therefore, McLaughlin concludes, “We have to decide whether that’s acceptable or not and, if not, to what lengths we are willing to go to reverse it.”
More egregious than Trump’s diplomatic malpractice was Trump’s defense of the murderous Kim, a man who has assassinated family members, starved and imprisoned in work camps hundreds of thousands of his countrymen and sits atop a dictatorial regime second to none in human rights atrocities. Despite all that and previous remarks at an address to Congress deploring the fatal mistreatment of an American, Trump played PR man for Kim:
Asked by a reporter whether he had discussed with Kim the case of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea for 17 months for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, Trump said he had.
Warmbier was in a coma through most of his imprisonment and died at age 22 shortly after being sent home to Cincinnati. Kim rules a totalitarian state, and his government has insisted that Warmbier was nothing but a “criminal.”
Yet Trump said Kim denied to him any knowledge of or role in his treatment.
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” Trump said. “Those prisons are rough. They’re rough places, and bad things happen. But I don’t believe he knew about it.”
No one aside from Trump could believe that a totalitarian dictator and human rights monster such as Kim would be so clueless. In fact, just a year ago, Trump didn’t buy it either. “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies,” he said during his 2018 State of the Union address. “Otto Warmbier was a hardworking student at the University of Virginia. On his way to study abroad in Asia, Otto joined a tour to North Korea. At its conclusion, this wonderful young man was arrested and charged with crimes against the state. After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor, before returning him to America last June — horribly injured and on the verge of death. He passed away just days after his return.” He promised to Warmbier’s parents and siblings, who were in attendance, “Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.” That didn’t last long.
“It is simply disgusting what he said exonerating Kim for the murder of a U.S. citizen,” Katulis says. “No one has been brought to justice for that murder. The episode shows how weak Trump is when he meets with leaders like Kim and Putin — he turns into a fawning, shrinking violet who kowtows to America’s worst adversaries.”
Trump’s egregious comments in Vietnam certainly are reminiscent of Trump’s embarrassing gullibility in siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of interference in the 2016 election over United States intelligence agencies and with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s insistence that he did not know about the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump is so needy for approval and so ignorant about the world that he’ll apparently believe anything a dictator tells him — so long as it comes with a truckload of compliments and maybe a red carpet or glowing orb.
Sullivan dryly remarks, “Maybe we could get Kim Jong Un or Putin to tell Trump there’s no emergency at the [southern] border. He would rescind his declaration immediately.”
Maybe what is required is some serious reconsideration as to whether complete denuclearization can be obtained through diplomacy, even diplomacy backed up by economic sanctions. “It was a fool’s errand,” Eliot Cohen, former State Department official and frequent Trump critic. “What is striking is how similar this was to all the previous - and doomed - attempts to negotiate the North Koreans out of their nuclear weapons program.” Trump seems to believe his mere presence could prompt North Korea to re-imagine their whole theory of regime survival. That’s daft -- about as daft as imagining Jared Kusher has the magic key to unlock a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
The president may be a crook, as Michael Cohen alleged in testimony on Wednesday; he’s also a fool whose ignorance and narcissism embarrass the United States on a daily basis and makes us less safe and the world less free.