Donald Trump is meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in Washington today, in anticipation of the big summit with North Korea's Kim Jong-un next month in Singapore. That summit looks more and more precarious, however, since it turns out that dealing with North Korea is more complicated than doing a licensing deal with a Chinese factory for Trump's cheap, ugly ties.
This article was originally published at Salon
Last week Time reported that Trump wasn't doing much preparation for the summit anyway because, according to a senior administration official, “he doesn’t think he needs to." Apparently, "aides plan to squeeze in time for Trump to learn more about Kim’s psychology and strategize on ways to respond to offers Kim may make in person," but no plans had been set as of last Thursday.
National security adviser John Bolton appeared on ABC's "This Week" a week ago and seemed unconcerned about the fact that the president was going into the negotiations completely clueless:
I think one advantage of having this meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un so soon, in effect, without months and months and months of preparation, is that President Trump will be able to size Kim Jong Un up and see whether the commitment [to denuclearization] is real.
Let's just say that Bolton seemed frighteningly smug as he said it, suggesting that he knew very well that his statement was vacuous and he would be perfectly happy to have Trump come away disappointed and embarrassed. That would certainly make it easier to get Trump to embark on a serious regime-change strategy, such as Bolton has been pushing for years. An angry Trump is what he needs to make his dream come true.
Trump wants the "win," of course. But according to this New York Times report by David Sanger, the president has awakened to the fact that it might not go his way
Mr. Trump was both surprised and angered by a statement issued on Wednesday by the North’s chief nuclear negotiator, who declared that the country would never trade away its nuclear weapons capability in exchange for economic aid, administration officials said. The statement, while a highly familiar tactic by the North, represented a jarring shift in tone after weeks of conciliatory gestures.
Had Trump torn himself away from "Fox & Friends" long enough to listen to some actual briefings he might have known that. Now he's starting to get the feeling this whole thing might not be the slam dunk he's been counting on.
Bolton is part of the problem. North Korea specifically lashed out at the administration over the national security adviser's insistence that the U.S. wanted to use the "Libya model," in which that country was persuaded to turn over its nuclear equipment in return for economic aid which wasn't forthcoming. In 2011 its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, was overthrown and killed. You can see why the North Koreans wouldn't be too enthusiastic about repeating that.
But then, as the New York Times points out, Trump made it even more confusing because he's too busy tweeting to read a briefing paper:
When reporters asked Mr. Trump about Libya, he managed, in one stroke, to contradict Mr. Bolton and misconstrue the importance of the trade of the nuclear program for economic rewards.
“The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all, when we’re thinking of North Korea,” Mr. Trump said. “If you look at that model with Qaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him.” That referred to Western military intervention in 2011, not to the nuclear disarmament that came eight years before.
Trump then said that if the parties don't make a satisfactory deal, "that model would take place." That clearly suggests a military intervention, which is exactly what the North Koreans had warned would blow up the talks.
According to Robert E. Kelly, a political analyst and professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, it appears that Moon, eager to keep Trump talking instead of tweeting and threatening, may have oversold the North's new willingness to make a deal. Since Trump only listens to Fox News flatterers, he believed this was all due to his magnificent leadership and convinced himself he had the Nobel Peace Prize all locked up.
Kelly pointed out on Twitter that the smart thing now would be to postpone the summit until the three parties can do some real preparation and find some basis for consensus. He believes that Moon, not Kim, is the one who has been frightened by Trump's bellicose tweets and that the South Korean president is afraid to let Bolton have any space to push Trump further and so will argue forcefully for the summit. According to CNN, Trump's aides are now increasingly skeptical that it will happen at all.
Vice President Mike Pence tried out the rationale for abandoning the meeting Monday night on Fox News, saying that "it would be a great mistake for Kim Jong Un to think he could play Donald Trump," and stating unequivocally that the U.S. is willing to walk if the North Koreans refuse to give in to Trump's demands. He'd have to forego the Nobel for the time being, but there's always Jared Kushner's Middle East peace plan.
In any case, Trump doesn't have the time or the inclination to deal with possible nuclear war right now. He's busy fighting an epic battle with his own FBI and the Justice Department over the investigation into his campaign's possible collusion with Russian agents back in 2016. He is, by all accounts, obsessed with it. Unlike previous presidents Clinton and Reagan, both of whom faced serious investigations during their presidency, he is unable to "compartmentalize" and do the job of president at the same time. Grace under pressure is not his strong suit.
Trump probably would not be capable of handling a major summit of such monumental importance under any circumstances, since he won't do the homework required of a president. That's because he believes, as he told the Washington Post, that he reaches decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I already had, plus the words ‘common sense." Judging by his administration so far, he has very little of either.