On May 24, President Trump announced he was cancelling the much-anticipated summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
Immediately, there were those who said this confirms that Trump is a foreign policy genius. Cancelling the summit either should never have happened to begin with or Trump realized that Kim was reverting to his old ways in order to extract concessions, so rather than submitting to Kim’s blackmail, Trump cancelled the summit giving him more leverage over Kim. On the other side, there were those who said Trump’s cancelling of the summit was a set back for peace, somehow proving that Trump has no idea what he is doing and that he is just adding one more instance of him not working well with our allies.
The truth is probably somewhere in-between. Almost immediately Trump said that the meeting could still happen as scheduled. In response, North Korea sent General Kim Yong Chol to New York to meet with US officials regarding the potential summit. Kim is seen as the mastermind behind the 2010 torpedoing of the South Korean corvette Cheonan that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
These are the types of people Trump will be dealing with if the summit is to happen. The North Korean government is full of liars and murders. Kim Jong-un’s personality did not change just because South Korea elected a center-left President who talks of peace and reconciliation. Obviously, it would be better for the United States, South Korea, and the world, if the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program could be solved peacefully. However, wishful thinking is hardly good foreign policy.
The error Obama committed with Iran was assuming that just because Rouhani was not traveling the world denying the Holocaust as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did, that meant he was some sort of moderate. The nature of the Iranian regime did not change. The only reason Rouhani is able to be President of Iran is because the Ayotollah approves of his revolutionary credentials.
If he has not already, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is dangerously close to falling into this same trap with regards to Kim and North Korea. Moon is deeply invested in these peace talks. One can surely see why, but North Korea needs a deal far more than the United States and South Korea. If the summit is to happen, Trump needs to be careful to avoid this trap as well. It is not a well-kept secret that the North Korean economy is in shambles and if the history of communism in the late 20th century taught us anything, it is that communist economies cannot last forever. Trump and Moon should be wary of granting sanction relief in exchange for promises from a regime that is known to be full of cheats and liars.
As long as there are American troops in South Korea, even a mass murdering tyrant like Kim would never be so stupid as to launch a full-scale invasion. He does not need his nuclear facilities anymore, and that is assuming we believe them, because he already has enough nuclear weapons to boil South Korea or to blackmail the world into giving him aid or anything else he wants. If the summit is to happen, Trump and Moon need to drive a hard bargain and be willing to walk away and not capitulate on major points of contention just so they could say they signed a deal like Obama and Kerry did with Iran.
Trump likes to view himself as a deal maker. He also likes to run around the country to various rallies and television cameras and talk and tweet about all the great things he has done as President. He does not care so much about the content, but rather about checking another item off a list of things to do. The danger lies with the fact that Trump may well consent to a deal for the sake of making a deal so he can tout himself as a great peacemaker and that it was he, not the Washington foreign policy establishment or some international relations professors, who view him as nothing more than a buffoon, who solved the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.