foreign policy

Is Trump Getting Played by North Korea?

Nobody knew diplomacy could be so complicated. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

A week ago, President Donald Trump was gearing up to write a fantastically humble acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize “everyone” thought he should win for denuclearizing North Korea: an accomplishment he has yet to achieve, though some sycophants in the House of Representatives had already nominated him for the prize.

With all this hype, it would be hugely embarrassing for the administration if its efforts to achieve peace and nuclear disarmament in North Korea were to come to naught — a fact not likely lost on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. That Trump and his toadies were celebrating too soon is beyond doubt, as North Korea has not actually committed to anything concrete yet. In light of this week’s events, however, we must consider the possibility that embarrassing Trump has been Kim’s game all along.

In fairness to Trump, things had been looking pretty good on the North Korean front until very recently. A historic summit with Kim is on his calendar for next month, Kim and South Korean president Moon Jae-in just held a fruitful meeting of their own, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned from Pyongyang with three Americans held prisoner by Kim’s regime. North Korea announced plans for the demolition of its nuclear testing site, which satellite images suggest is already underway.

In the past few days, however, North Korea has changed its tune, and the path to nuclear disarmament no longer looks as straight and smooth as it did a week or two ago. Ostensibly in response to a U.S.–South Korea air force drill, the North on Tuesday canceled another much-hyped round of talks with the South that had been scheduled for Wednesday. The regime is now reportedly having second thoughts about next month’s meeting with the U.S. as well, a shift that has blindsided the White House.

The abrupt reversal of what had looked like a sure thing appears to have thrown the president himself for a loop; in comments from the Oval Office on Thursday, Trump sought to reassure Kim with up-front guarantees that in exchange for a disarmament agreement, the U.S. would provide “protections that will be very strong” for him and his regime: “He would be there, he would be running his country, his country would be very rich.” Kim has indicated that the price of giving up his nuclear weapons, or at least part of that price, is a credible assurance from the U.S. that it will not invade North Korea.

Negotiating with yourself and making promises that may prove practically or politically untenable for you to keep are presumably not tactics recommended in The Art of the Deal, but these hasty remarks might not have been necessary had Trump not made the original mistake of hiring John Bolton as his national-security advisor.

Pyongyang’s newfound hesitancy to do a deal with the U.S. is a direct response to Bolton’s repeated statements that the Trump administration was looking to follow the “Libya model” of nuclear disarmament with North Korea — a model that, in the long run, ended very badly for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Bolton was also surely a factor in Trump’s recent decision to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran, sending a signal to Pyongyang that any deal it makes with the U.S. might not be worth the paper it is printed on.

Meanwhile, Bolton, Pompeo, and Trump himself have been spinning three different stories about the nature and purpose of these talks. Pompeo says North Korea’s reward for denuclearizing would be an infusion of investment from private American companies — which, to the staunchly anti-Western, Stalinist regime in Pyongyang, sounds more like an invasion.

Given what we know about Trump’s attention span, he himself may not understand the significance and ramifications of what he and his top foreign-policy officials are saying. He also might not grasp that his vision of “denuclearization” in the Korean peninsula is very different from Kim’s. Indeed, judging from some of his tweets in the past month, the president seems to believe that peace in Korea is practically a done deal already, when in fact a very uncertain process is still in its infancy and can easily be derailed.

Anyone who knows better than to trust North Korea (like Republicans did until it began dangling the prospect of a historic, legacy-saving victory in front of their problematic president) should have been alert to the chance that Kim’s recent peace overtures were insincere all along. After all, he has yet to give up anything particularly dear: Talk is cheap, more American hostages can be acquired eventually, and nuclear-testing sites can be rebuilt.

With nukes on hand, ballistic missiles in development, and thousands of conventional weapons aimed at Seoul, the North Korean leader could conceivably use his deterrent capabilities to string the U.S. and South Korea along for years to come. He knows that an invasion would be tremendously costly to both his adversaries and that even if Trump is crazy enough to consider it, the American military establishment knows those risks and will stay his hand if it can.

Walking up to the brink of a deal, then turning around and walking away, is a familiar strategy for North Korea at this point, and framing the collapse of negotiations as the result of American perfidy would play extremely well to Kim’s captive audience. The Trump administration is proceeding under the assumption that Pyongyang is just blowing smoke and the talks are still on, but it should be wary of more deceptive behavior from the North Koreans if and when the summit takes place — not to mention the very real possibility that Trump walks into a trap and impulsively agrees to something he shouldn’t.

We know that in Trump’s own mind at least, he’s “like, a really smart person.” But what’s the plan if Kim Jong-un turns out to be smarter?

Is Trump Getting Played by North Korea?