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.