It’s not exactly Donald Trump’s Reykjavik, but he has done the right thing by calling off the misconceived summit with Kim Jong-un.
The North Koreans have been yanking our chain over the last week or so, presumably trying to establish their leverage and begin a negotiation over the negotiation. They seemed to make some progress, with Trump saying the other day that maybe we could settle for something short of complete, verifiable denuclearization, which is supposed to be our core demand. The president may have tempted the North Koreans into the gamesmanship by occasionally seeming over-eager to take credit for a stupendous diplomatic success (stripping North Korea of its nukes) that hadn’t happened yet and is unlikely to happen.
On the other hand, unpredictability is a typical North Korean negotiating tactic, so the sudden shift from warmth and sunshine to blustery demands and threats shouldn’t have been unexpected.
It was always far-fetched that the North would be willing to give up its nuclear weapons. For Pyongyang, the value of a summit wouldn’t be the opportunity for a good-faith negotiation at the highest levels but the chance to use a superficially successful meeting to unravel the sanctions against it, the way it has in the past.
President Trump says there’s still the chance of a summit at some point. It’d be better to give up hopes for a splashy meeting and instead double down on the maximum pressure campaign. There’s still room to tighten up further by, for instance, cracking down on the regime’s illicit sources of cash and imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese entities dealing with the North. The longer-term goal would be to crack the regime, or at least its will.
It’s nice to believe that the North can be defanged easily and quickly at a headline-generating summit. But realism says otherwise. The United States shouldn’t, yet again, let the North Koreans play scorpion to our frog.