foreign policy

Trump’s Plan to Wing It at North Korea Summit Is Already Going Poorly

“Hey, what could go wrong?” Photo: Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump indicated on Thursday that he believes the outcome of his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un depends less on whether he’s done his homework, and more on him having the mindset of a master dealmaker.

“I think I’m very well prepared,” Trump said in a joint press conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude, it’s about willingness to get things done … So this isn’t a question of preparation, it’s a question of whether or not people want it to happen, and we’ll know that very quickly.”

To a certain extent, this is true: No amount of prep work by the U.S. will make much difference if the North Koreans are immovable on the matter of denuclearization. On the face of it, Trump is signaling that the purpose of this meeting will be to gauge how serious Kim is about making a deal with the U.S. He’ll plan his next steps accordingly.

Trump said he’s open to signing a final peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, as well as to normalizing relations with Pyongyang. But he also said he’s willing to abandon the talks if they seem to be going nowhere: “All I can say is I am totally prepared to walk away. I did it once before,” he said, ostensibly referring to his abrupt cancelation of the summit two weeks ago, which he reconsidered after receiving a hand-delivered letter from Kim himself.

There are, however, a few potential problems with Trump’s all-attitude plan for Singapore, the first of which is a lack of clarity about what the administration’s attitude actually is. While Trump characterized the meeting as a “friendly negotiation” and stressed that he “really believe[s] that Kim Jong-un wants to do something,” his key advisers, agents, and enablers have been sending conflicting signals.

Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, for instance, boasted on Wednesday that after Trump canceled the summit, “Kim Jong-un got back on his hands and knees and begged for it, which is exactly the position you want to put him in.” Begging on one’s knees is a degrading position in any culture, but it is a particularly ritualized gesture of submission in Korea and not at all the way an image-obsessed strongman dictator like Kim would like to be seen.

Deliberately or not, Giuliani’s remarks were as provocative as the U.S. comments that set off the North Koreans last month, sparking threats, recriminations, and the summit’s temporary cancelation. Last month National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice-President Mike Pence both suggested that the U.S. is pursuing the “Libya model” for North Korea, hinting that Kim’s regime might come to the same end as Muammar Qaddafi’s if he doesn’t give in to American pressure.

June 12 is less than a week away, but that’s still plenty of time for the North Koreans to decide they don’t want to have a summit after all, or to stand Trump up and humiliate him. If Trump really wants to have a friendly negotiation, he should probably tell his representatives not to go around trash-talking the person he’s trying to negotiate with. That’s not even Diplomacy 101; it’s just common sense.

As Trump’s personal lawyer, Giuliani has no role in the North Korea summit, but Bolton does. The national security adviser has spent over a year openly rooting for diplomacy with Pyongyang to fail so that the U.S. can pursue the invasion and regime change Bolton believes is readily achievable, against the opinion of most North Korea experts and non-armchair generals. North Koreans can read the Wall Street Journal as well as the rest of us and know that our president is currently advised on matters of war and peace by a man who is fond of the bad joke: “How do you know that the North Korean regime is lying? Answer: Their lips are moving.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo does not seem to be entirely on the same page as his boss either. The chief diplomat cleaned up after Trump’s remarks on Thursday, telling reporters the president was fully prepared for the summit and that during his stint as CIA director, “there were few days that I left the Oval Office, after having briefed the president, that we didn’t talk about North Korea.”

Given what we know about Trump’s attention span and level of interest in the tedious day-to-day work of presidenting, however, it’s entirely possible that while Pompeo and other officials have given him numerous, extensive briefings on North Korea, he wasn’t listening closely and didn’t retain much information.

Pompeo, who was not warned of Trump’s decision to cancel the summit last month before it happened, also praised the president’s “fundamentally different” approach to North Korea, arguing that it “has already driven us to a place we’d not been able to achieve” in past administrations.

Indeed, if it goes ahead, Tuesday’s summit will be the first known in-person meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. That is a historic moment, but it’s also a moment Pyongyang, not Washington, has been seeking for years. It allows Kim to tell his people and the world that he forced the Americans to send their president to personally negotiate peace. All he had to do was ask nicely, suggest he might be open to denuclearization, and play along with Trump’s dominance games (e.g. the hand-delivered letter).

Kim gets his propaganda coup even if the summit goes nowhere, and he’ll still have enough conventional and nuclear firepower to deter a U.S. invasion, as long as most U.S. officials remain less comfortable than Bolton with a war that may involve the burning of Seoul and 20,000 South Korean deaths a day (assuming it doesn’t go nuclear). Is Trump prepared to tell the American public — and the governments of South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan — that diplomacy has failed and we’re going to war? If not, what’s the source of our leverage in these negotiations?

What happens if Trump waltzes into Singapore hoping for a meeting of the minds with Kim and finds he’s been played? What if Kim makes him an offer that looks good to him but has hidden downsides? If Kim proves intractable on the denuclearization question, or demands assurances in return that the U.S. can’t easily deliver, what’s his next move? What checks are in place to ensure that the president isn’t cornered into agreeing to something he shouldn’t? Preparing answers to these questions is the purpose of that prep work Trump claims he doesn’t need.

Reconciliation with North Korea is a deal orders of magnitude more complicated than any Trump has ever done in his private life, with astronomically higher stakes. If the president isn’t convinced that he needs to prepare for this event carefully, he may be in for a rude awakening next Tuesday.

Trump’s Plan to Wing It With N. Korea Already Going Poorly