The most incredible thing about Donald Trump’s idea for an America-North Korea summit leading to dictator Kim Jong Un giving up his nuclear weapons is that it lasted so long as a serious notion instead of being laughed out of court from the very beginning.
What shouldn’t be a surprise is that North Korea has reverted to its traditional, erratic behaviour ranting against the US and placing the summit process in danger of unraveling.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in met Trump at the White House Tuesday ostensibly to ensure they have a unified position at the summit, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
However, their agenda was dominated by trying to decipher what North Korea’s outbursts signify and to figure out if there will be a summit at all.
Trump’s profound ignorance of even recent history, allied to aggressive shunning of advice from experts, allowed the US president to convince himself that Kim, the third-generation pedigree of a despotic dynasty that has reviled America for 70 years, had suddenly decided to make nice with the US.
Not only that, but just as North Korea had demonstrated it possessed an intercontinental ballistic nuke, Kim was going to discard the nuclear arsenal his family had labored so long to construct and which is his sole, but terrifying, bargaining chip.
Further prodding Trump to suspend reality, has been his desperation to gain a spectacular diplomatic triumph to deflect attention from the meager achievements of his 16-month presidency, plagued by sex scandals and an investigation of his alleged shady, perhaps criminal, connections to Russia.
Trump’s drama with North Korea began with a ludicrous and juvenile exchange of insults and threats to nuke each other. In Trump’s narrative his tough tweets were so intimidatingly effective they drove his foe to the negotiating table and an agreement to hold a summit.
When Kim announced that he was going to dismantle his country’s nuclear testing facilities as a good-will gesture even before the summit, that should have rung some alarm bells. Nuclear experts and spooks said the testing site, at a complex of mountain tunnels was collapsing from the stresses of six nuclear blasts and redundant as Kim’s scientists had already gained all the data they needed.
So Kim parleyed a pile of nuclear rubble into a grand gesture he knew Trump would claim as further proof of his diplomatic skills and for which Kim expected to be rewarded.
Trump duly touted the version of events with himself as hero to his core supporters boasting that he was “saving the world”.
He left out the fact that most of the difficult, politically perilous work to lay the foundations for the summit was conducted by South Korea’s President Moon. Trump has shamelessly snatched all the credit. He has wondered aloud if he shouldn’t be in line for a Nobel peace prize.
So when things started to go awry last week Trump began to worry that the summit could turn into a massive embarrassment.
The harsh change in tone was triggered by US National Security Adviser John Bolton who always believed the summit had little chance of success. Before he took up his post he advocated that the US should give North Korea a deadline to abandon its nukes and then use military force if it didn’t.
So North Korea was already sensitive to Bolton’s pronouncements when last week it was reported to Kim that the National security Adviser advocated a “Libyan model” for North Korea.
What Bolton meant was that, like Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Kim should be brought in from international isolation and offered economic aid in return for abandoning his nuclear program. Indeed for eight years after Gaddafi agreed, that is what happened. Until his people revolted against their brutal tormentor.
That was the part of “Libyan model” Kim was focusing on, particularly the bit when a mob captured Gaddafi, filmed him being tortured and summarily executed him.
Trump tried to mollify North Korea but messed that up and gave Kim there impression he would be “decimated” if North Korea failed to agree to US demands to give up all its nuclear weapons, rapidly and verifiably.
North Korea responded by saying it was changing its mind about giving all of its nukes up swiftly.
Although Pyongyang is blaming Bolton for spoiling the atmosphere, it’s possible China has also pressured Kim to curb his enthusiasm. China is North Korea’s most important patron and keeps Kim on a tight leash – something he no doubt resents. Kim may have thought if he created any sort of independent relationship with DC that would give him more leeway with China. And that would not be to China’s liking.
Kim knows that Trump is so eager to present to his supporters the appearance of success that he might be coaxed into promising concessions that scale back America’s military presence on the peninsula and jeopardize South Korea’s security.
On Tuesday Trump acknowledged preparations for the summit had run into difficulties but still believed it could happen: “There are certain conditions we want to happen. I think we’ll get those conditions. And if we don’t, we won’t have the meeting.”
The horrible truth is that Trump could promise North Korea much for something he could dress up as a success even if it lacked substance.
So senior officials in the White House know their task now is to guide Trump away from making any catastrophic concessions while managing expectations about the summit in such a way Trump’s faithful won’t see what transpires as his failure.
One solution might be to blame Moon, who acted as messenger and paved the way for the summit, for sending overly-optimistic signals to DC.
Whereas Trump was reluctant to give Moon any credit for the peace process when it seemed on track, he will almost certainly give the South Korean leader all the credit for any failure.