foreign policy

Trump Aides Worry He Doesn’t Have Good Grasp on the North Korea Situation

“Hold on, are you saying Kim might by trying to trick me?” Photo: Pool/Getty Images

We’ve all been there: you’re underprepared for a big final exam, and as the test date approaches you spend too much time worrying and not enough time studying. That’s essentially what’s going on with President Trump right now — except the consequences involve bringing the world closer to nuclear war, not repeating Global History next semester.

The White House is still reeling after North Korea reverted to acting like North Korea last week, suddenly ditching the conciliatory language, canceling talks with South Korea, and threatening to call off Kim Jong Un’s summit with Trump, which is scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.

On Friday, the Trump administration tried to get things back on track with a concession to North Korea: calling off the joint military exercises with South Korea that led Pyongyang to cancel its meeting with Seoul. Trump also addressed North Korea’s complaint about National Security Adviser John Bolton floating the “Libya model” to denuclearize the North. He somehow managed to contradict Bolton, then repeat the threat that irked Pyongyang.

“The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all, when we’re thinking of North Korea,” Trump said. “If you look at that model with Qaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him,” he continued, referring to the U.S. and its allies intervening to help oust Qaddafi just a few years after he agreed to denuclearize.

“Now that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely,” Trump said. “But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un is going to be very, very happy.”

Trump then called South Korean president Moon Jae-in late on Saturday, according to the Washington Post, to get his take on why Pyongyang is taking a public stance so different from what Kim told Moon during their historic meeting last month (though that’s a common North Korean tactic). Moon is scheduled to meet with Trump in Washington on Tuesday, so the call was seen as a sign that Trump was too anxious to wait three days.

Indeed, the New York Times reported that Trump has taken to questioning aides and allies on whether they think he should proceed with the summit, despite the risk of political embarrassment. Advisers are said to be worried (rightly) that Trump put himself in a bad position by remarking that “everyone thinks” he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. He’ll have a hard time demanding concessions from North Korea if Kim knows he’s desperate for a win.

But the talks might not even get that far. According to the Times, aides are starting to doubt that Trump will able to conduct an in-depth negotiation with Kim:

The aides are also concerned about what kind of grasp Mr. Trump has on the details of the North Korea program, and what he must insist upon as the key components of denuclearization. Mr. Moon and his aides reported that Mr. Kim seemed highly conversant with all elements of the program when the two men met, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made similar comments about Mr. Kim, based on his two meetings with him in Pyongyang, the North’s capital.

There aren’t any seasoned North Korea negotiators at the White House, but other Trump administration staffers are digging in. A U.S. advance team is in Singapore working on logistics, and South Korean officials said Bolton has beens strategizing with his counterpart in Seoul on a near-daily basis. “It’s true there’s more coordination that needs to be done that hasn’t been done,” one senior U.S. official told the Post. “There’s still time, but not a lot of it.”

It doesn’t appear Trump’s taken that sentiment to heart. Per the Times:

But aides who have recently left the administration say Mr. Trump has resisted the kind of detailed briefings about enrichment capabilities, plutonium reprocessing, nuclear weapons production and missile programs that Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush regularly sat through.

But whatever, if he doesn’t memorize all the details by June 12 he can just write the answers on his hand.

Trump Aides Worry He Doesn’t Get North Korea Situation