National Security & Defense

Good Riddance to the North Korea Summit

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the first enlarged meeting of the seventh Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, May 18, 2018. (KCNA/via Reuters)
It was a bad idea from the start, and Trump must hold firm to his decision to cancel it.

Here’s the good news about the planned summit with North Korea: It’s canceled — for now, at least.

In a letter posted earlier today, President Trump informed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that the “tremendous anger and open hostility” in Kim’s most recent public statement meant that going forward with the meeting would be “inappropriate, at this time.”

Trump left the door open to reconsidering his stance if Kim decided to “change [his] mind having to do with this most important summit.” He should shut that door, because the summit was a bad idea from the start.

First, from the beginning this summit was predicated on North Korean strength, not American threats. It was going to be Kim’s crowning glory, the moment when the North Korean people assumed their rightful place at the center of the world stage, the fulfillment of juche, the North Korean ideology of self-reliance and cultural superiority.

Think of it this way: If North Korea hadn’t successfully tested more-powerful bombs and longer-range missiles, would an American president even have considered a summit? If North Korea hadn’t demonstrated that it’s on the verge of possessing a truly potent nuclear deterrent, would the world have obsessed over Kim’s visits to China and South Korea? And if the entire summit was based on North Korea’s nuclear prowess, would the nation ever have entered into a binding, enforceable agreement to give away the keys to its national greatness? It seems unlikely, to say the least.

Second, in tangible ways North Korea was already using the summit to leverage concessions. It was an ominous sign when the U.S. canceled a training exercise involving B-52 bombers. South Korean officials had reportedly “expressed concerns” that the exercise could raise tensions before the summit. It’s routine for North Korea to demand the cancellation of joint military exercises with South Korea. It’s not routine for the U.S. and South Korea to acquiesce to those demands.

Yes, America can point to small victories in advance of the summit. North Korea released three U.S. captives. And it made a show of blowing up its lone nuclear-test site — after, of course, it successfully tested multiple bombs. Once you know your technology works, continued nuclear testing isn’t necessary. America’s last nuclear test was in 1992, almost 26 years ago.

Moreover, there are multiple signs that the United States and South Korea aren’t united in purpose or strategy. Seoul is uncomfortable with Trump’s bellicosity, and if the South isn’t prepared for military confrontation, then courting conflict is almost comically reckless, and Pyongyang knows it. After all, South Korea controls the vast bulk of allied forces on the Korean peninsula, and military action taken over its objection, while certainly possible, would create grave risks on the ground.

Were we entering a summit with our own ally weakening our bargaining position? If so, we were increasing the odds of a bad deal, and potentially enabling North Korean threats.

I agree with Nicholas Eberstadt. Writing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, he noted that North Korea was using its standard “shakedown techniques,” which have been “honed to perfection by three generations of regime negotiators.” In short, North Korea was not going to agree to denuclearization. It was going to make whatever vague statements it needed to make to secure economic relief and a temporary reprieve from military threats. Under such circumstances, something like the terrible Iran deal was the best case for the summit, and even that seemed unlikely.

What next? I fear that this is merely a short respite. Trump is answering North Korean shakedowns with an attempted shakedown of his own. After all, part of the “art of the deal” is demonstrating a willingness to walk away. Trump has done that. But Americans should be under no illusions: If the definition of “success” is actual denuclearization, then success is not truly on the table.

Until the facts on the ground are fundamentally different, no meeting will change the Kim regime’s nature. No president can alter its character.

Instead, the realistic options are between terrible failure (concessions with no firm or enforceable North Korean guarantees) and moderate failure (concessions with some concrete limitations on the North Korean nuclear program). Either way, the North Korean regime will leave the summit stronger and more secure than when it entered.

I sympathize with the desire to meet. Truly, I do. There are no good options for dealing with the North Korean threat, and talks hold obvious appeal. Every president tends to believe he can succeed where others failed. Every president can easily critique the paths taken by his predecessors. But every president also eventually faces the fundamental reality of the Korean Peninsula: Our foe is heavily armed, obsessed with its own superiority, and consumed not just by a survival instinct but also by the will ultimately to win, to rule both North and South Korea.

Until the facts on the ground are fundamentally different, no meeting will change the Kim regime’s nature. No president can alter its character. Trump was right to cancel the summit. Now it’s time to hold firm. Mr. President, don’t reschedule. If you do, failure will almost certainly be in your future.

NOW WATCH: “Trump Warns Kim of ‘Massive & Powerful’ Nuclear Arsenal”

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Most Popular

U.S.

Yes, Hillary Should Have Been Prosecuted

I know this is ancient history, but — I’m sorry — I just can’t let it go. When historians write the definitive, sordid histories of the 2016 election, the FBI, Hillary, emails, Russia, and Trump, there has to be a collection of chapters making the case that Hillary should have faced a jury ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Yes, There Was FBI Bias

There is much to admire in Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz’s highly anticipated report on the FBI’s Clinton-emails investigation. Horowitz’s 568-page analysis is comprehensive, fact-intensive, and cautious to a fault. It is also, nonetheless, an incomplete exercise — it omits half ... Read More
Sports

Let the World Have Soccer

The United States of America did not qualify for the World Cup this year. Good for us. Soccer is corrupt, hyper-regulated, impoverished by a socialist-style fondness for rationing, and organized to strangle human flourishing. It is so dependent on the whims of referees that is in effect a helpless captive of the ... Read More
Culture

Staying on the Path

Dear Reader (Including those of you who are no longer my personal lawyer), Almost 20 years ago, I wrote in this space that the movie A Simple Plan was one of the most conservative movies of the 1990s. In case you haven’t seen it, the plot is pretty straightforward, almost clichéd. It focuses on three men ... Read More
Immigration

Child Separation at the Border

If you want to read a thoughtful and constructive explanation and partial defense of the policies being implemented by the White House, you should read this piece by Rich Lowry. If you want to read a trollish and counter-productive screed fit for a comment section, read the White House’s official press ... Read More
Economy & Business

Asymmetrical Capitalism

I like to think of American Airlines CEO Doug Parker as my pen pal, but, in truth, he never writes back. It’s a lopsided relationship — asymmetrical, in a word. I have for many years argued that most people would be enthusiastic about capitalism if not for their interactions with a small number of ... Read More