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Trump’s North Korean Nuclear Theatrics

Robert E. Kelly
There probably is room for a US-North Korean deal, but Trump’s propensity to turn every major policy initiative into a personal melodrama may well undercut his Korea effort.

Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

A railway station TV screen showing US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Seoul, South Korea, May 16, 2018

The last few weeks in North Korea diplomacy have been tumultuous but curiously pointless, in our modern “Trumpian disruption” way. US President Donald Trump has for months flouted established patterns of engagement with North Korea, and he clearly relishes doing so. Cable TV is filled with pro-Trump pundits praising his marginalization of “so-called experts” on the North. The analyst community is apparently to be swept aside before Trump’s bold moves and wheeler-and-dealer bravado, which will bring North Korean supremo Kim Jong-un to the table.

But it is not at all clear that this turmoil has resulted in anything other than chaos, setting off a daily rollercoaster of changes, such as the South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s sudden suggestion that he, too, might participate in the summit. We are still waiting for a clear sign of triumph or improvement in America’s position in relation to North Korea: Pyongyang has offered nothing yet that cannot be easily reversed, while in South Korea, Trump’s antics have noticeably worsened US standing.

Trump’s bellicose 2017 rhetoric has scared up a huge dovish consensus for the liberal Moon to make concessions to the North—which is an ironic result, perhaps, for a hawkish Republican US administration to have achieved. Elected a year ago with just 41 percent of the vote, Moon’s approval rating is now above 80 percent, despite no serious domestic achievement. Trump has also regularly bullied South Korea—by, for example, calling Moon an appeaser, threatening to unilaterally withdraw US troops, and forcing an unnecessary and contentious trade-deal renegotiation.

The US president is now extraordinarily unpopular here, even as the South Korean government has taken to rank flattery to keep him at bay. It is an open secret in South Korea that Moon’s suggestion that Trump might win the Nobel Peace Prize was nothing but a gimmick to appeal to Trump’s vanity and keep him on a diplomatic track in the place of his threatened “fire and fury.” No one in South Korea actually believes it—and it is a mark of just how effectively Trump sets the US media agenda that the notion was seriously debated at home for several weeks.

Conversely, when the Trump administration decided to put the Singapore meeting back on track, it sent to Pyongyang, on May 28, precisely those sorts of experts—people like US ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, and National Security Council Korean specialist Allison Hooker—who represent the supposedly stodgy status quo. After two months of his showboating on North Korea, when the president finally decided to commit to the meeting with Kim, he fell back on establishment policy wonks operating quietly on business trips. These officials now face a nearly insuperable burden of slapping together in just a few weeks a framework deal that has eluded US negotiators for years. A successful outcome in this venture is highly unlikely.

This return to backroom expertise suggests that the Trump-Kim summit process has, in the harsh glare of the global media, been overexposed. One might call it the “Trump Show”: a disquieting mix of ginned-up melodrama and neediness for attention. And this was apparent from the start, when Trump accepted the general suggestion from South Korean envoys to meet Kim. It is unclear if the envoys actually spoke for Kim himself. They may simply have encouraged Trump. But Trump, ever impulsive and disdainful of experts, agreed to it without even telling his own staff. He then, bizarrely, sent the South Korean envoys outside the White House in the middle of the night to make a statement that the US secretary of state should have made in a proper forum.

This mix of reality TV antics and Trumpian disruption has characterized the entire run-up to the summit, generating endless TV talking-points, but little actual movement on the technical issues. Indeed, Trump’s bragging about how he had forced the North Koreans to agree to talks and the speculation about a Nobel almost certainly worsened the negotiations. The North Koreans partially halted the summit process in mid-May because of hype from the White House that Pyongyang would completely denuclearize. Compare this chaotic approach to President Lyndon Johnson’s boisterous yet meticulous engineering of Civil Rights and Great Society legislation, spending hours on the phone with members of Congress, fighting for every inch of political advantage.

As so often occurs with Trump initiatives, the process became more important than the substance itself. Rather than debating the details of what complicated deal we might strike with North Korea—a cap on missiles in exchange for a relocation of US peninsular airpower to Japan, Guam, or Hawaii, for example, or cameras in North Korean facilities in return for targeted sanctions relief—the media focus has been on the frenzy of daily moves and counter-moves, such as Trump’s strange, “jilted lover” withdrawal letter of May 24. Trump cannot help but makes his policy initiatives about himself, and this was no different. Meanwhile, no one seemed to notice that Trump never made any programmatic statement about what US talks with North Korea hope to achieve beyond highly unlikely CVID (complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament).


It is unnerving that on something as momentous as North Korea’s nuclear program, the president has never spoken in any detail about what trade-offs the US might consider in order to demobilize those weapons. If the North Koreans reject CVID, as most analysts expect, would the US accept something less? If so, in exchange for what? This is the sort of mixed-deal package likely to emerge, and Trump has not publicly laid any groundwork for what compromises the US might accept. Instead of maximalist campaign-rally speeches and the Nobel hype, moving the negotiations to the expert staff level—and giving them more time—would help a great deal.

The necessary presidential framing is probably missing because, first, the president himself does not understand these issues and does not want to spend the time studying them (reportedly, he “doesn’t think he needs to” prepare for the Singapore summit); and second, since he appears unwilling to actually negotiate with the North at Singapore, there is no need, conveniently, to learn any details. With a penchant for threats and little interest in the giving-to-get of diplomacy, Trump appears to expect to dictate terms, as he has attempted to do in negotiations over Obamacare repeal, China, NAFTA, Iran, and elsewhere.

A sign of this belligerence in the North Korean case was the promotion by Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton of the “Libya model,” referring to the agreement with the former leader of Libya, Muammar Qaddafi, to give up its entire nuclear program upfront in exchange for vague future promises of security guarantees and economic assistance. This major blunder suggests that Bolton and Pence were deliberately undercutting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s outreach to Pyongyang, even attempting to sabotage the June summit.

Few in the analyst community think North Korea will accept Libyan-style CVID. The North Koreans spent forty years working on nuclear weapons. They have written them into their country’s constitution. The ballistic missile warheads give Pyongyang the power of direct nuclear deterrence over the US mainland, and that is a powerful shield against any US-led attempt at regime change in North Korea. It would be astonishing if the North Koreans were suddenly to surrender their arsenal. Even were they to agree to that, the counter-concessions they would demand would be enormous—such as the end of the US-South Korean alliance.

Notably, the Libya deal ended very badly for the Libyan elite, particularly for Qaddafi. The US provided neither the economic aid nor the security assurance. First, Washington dragged its feet on the benefits, much to the enragement of Libyan officials, who started claiming they had been cheated. Then, during the 2011 Arab Spring, the US violated the security guarantee by supporting the Libyan revolutionaries. Qaddafi met a grisly end when rebels hunted him down, captured, and killed him. No one misses Qaddafi, of course, but the US’s clear failure to uphold its end of the bargain damaged American credibility in dealing with other rogue states over nuclear weapons.

It speaks to its high-handedness and disdain for diplomacy that Team Trump even suggested this as a framework, for Pyongyang has often said that a Libyan outcome is exactly what it fears. The North Koreans have told US negotiators for years that if Qaddafi had held onto his nuclear program, he would likely still be alive. This is almost certainly true.

Worse, this storyline from the North Koreans about Qaddafi is so well-known among those who work on North Korea that is it hard to imagine Bolton and Pence did not know it. When they invoked the Libyan model, they almost certainly knew it would set off a harsh response—as it did, with Pyongyang calling Pence a “dummy” the next day. They also likely knew it might even bring down the summit, which it nearly did. North Korea’s mid-May semi-halt to the process directly followed the Libya references. Pence has been a notably hawkish voice on North Korea from the start of the Trump administration, and Bolton has repeatedly advocated a military strike against North Korea or all-out regime change.

Little of the above suggests that Trumpian disruption has improved American foreign policy outcomes. Indeed, Trump’s manic behavior nearly sank the summit three times—first, with his early May triumphalism, predicting that the North would denuclearize and hyping the Nobel; second, with his May 24 semi-withdrawal letter, which simultaneously threatened nuclear war again; and third, through his inability to control his subordinates’ provocations about the Libya model. Amid the media distractions, no one appears to be talking about the specifics of a possible deal: some mix of aid, sanctions relief, cameras or inspectors in North Korea facilities, a pullback of US conventional forces or airpower, a peace treaty, a North Korean missile cap, a stockpile inventory, and so on. In the event that Trump does strike a deal, the US public—told hyperbolically last year that a nuclear North Korea was an existential threat to America—will be wholly unprepared for such a volte-face.


From the repeal of Obamacare to trade with China, from his border wall to an infrastructure plan, Trump’s overexposure of his proposals by stimulating a media frenzy through his own shenanigans routinely undercuts his efforts. There probably is room for a US-North Korean deal—both sides seem to want the summit—but Trump’s propensity to turn every major policy initiative into personal theatrics may well undercut his Korea effort, too. Pyongyang may judge that it cannot trust someone so unstable and prone to change his mind.

Worse, the North Koreans may try the flattery route to obtain a deal. They, too, can see that Trump has been easily rolled by sycophancy from such diverse quarters as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Persian Gulf royals, and US CEOs. The North Koreans were always canny negotiators in past dealings; it should not surprise us at all if they have now identified Trump’s vanity as his weakness, and choose to cater to it, as did their fawning response to Trump’s May 24 letter. Are you ready for Ambassador Dennis Rodman to take up residence in Trump Tower Pyongyang?

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