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Trump's steep learning curve has a price

Michael Knigge
May 24, 2018

It says a lot about this White House that Donald Trump penned a letter to Kim Jong Un in order to call off the historic North Korea summit. In addition to being unusual, it also complicates the standoff with Pyonygang.

USA - Donald Trump - Flughafen
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Loeb

One of the most quotable takes on the summit cancellation letter Donald Trump wrote to North Korea's Kim Jong Un came from Wendy Sherman, the lead US negotiator for the Iran nuclear accord — an agreement from which the Trump administration recently withdrew.

The presidential missive, "sounded like a 13-year-old's stream of consciousness in a breakup letter from overnight camp," Sherman told broadcaster MSNBC.

While the sound and wording of the letter, with thinly veiled threats of Washington's nuclear arsenal coupled with effusive praise for the "wonderful dialogue" Trump and Kim had supposedly established, was widely viewed as awkward, it is also politically significant.

'Dear Mr. Chairman'

That Trump chose to forego Twitter, his preferred mode of communicating with the world, to cancel the summit and instead wrote a letter on White House stationery to "Dear Mr. Chairman" can be viewed as a clear sign of Trump's raised perception of Kim — the man he just a few months ago insulted as "Little Rocket Man."

Read more: Donald Trump's North Korea gamble has backfired

Now, after a stunning turn of events, the letter suggests that Trump regards Kim as a political equal, which is undoubtedly a huge success for the leader of a regime that the president's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, famously branded as a part of an "axis of evil."

The collapse of the high stakes summit in Singapore, which still lacked a clear agenda just a few weeks before it was supposed to be happening, did not come as a surprise for most North Korea and Trump administration observers, many of whom had been deeply skeptical about the endeavor to begin with.  

"I never expected that this would go smoothly," said Han Park, a former unofficial US-North Korean negotiator who secured the release of two detained US journalists in 2009 and facilitated the visit of former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang in 1994.

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No incentive

Pyongyang, he noted, was never prepared to give up its nuclear arsenal without concrete US security guarantees, incentives and concessions in the first place. And since the Trump administration, vague promises to make North Korea prosperous and great aside, offered no coherent phased path towards denuclearization, Pyongyang had little incentive to expect much from a summit.         

"The deal was not there — even in the concept, in the abstract sense," said Park, a professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Georgia who has visited North Korea more than 50 times. 

When a high ranking North Korean official lashed out against US Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday, as alluded to in Trump's letter without naming Pence, it may have presented a welcome opportunity for the White House to back out of the summit. But the writing had been on the wall for some time, according to Miles Pomper, a nuclear security scholar at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

"I think the White House realized about a week ago that it was the victim of its own wishful thinking when it came to how the summit would unfold — in particular, its belief that North Korea was somehow veering from its longstanding demand that any concessions on its part be matched in a phased manner by those from the US," he said.

Blame game

Trump's missive to Kim, added Pomper, "is an attempt to shift the blame for the summit's failure to the North Koreans after the North Koreans attempted to do the same to Trump." 

The nixing of the summit is not just a blow for Trump, who arguably had done more to hype the meeting than anyone else and reportedly hoped to be rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, but for his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who traveled to Pyongyang twice to arrange the encounter.

"John Bolton's inclination prevailed," said Park, referring to Trump's bellicose national security adviser who, in an article earlier this year, made the "The Legal Case for Striking North Korea first," and who outraged Pyongyang recently when he suggested Libya as a model for North Korea giving up its nuclear arsenal.

"It's not clear if Bolton used the rhetoric about Libya intentionally to spike the deal or if he simply thinks US power can apply a one-size-fits-all solution to any problem, leaving aside issues of relative US leverage over countries," said Pomper. 

Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump
Trump had continuously hyped what would have been a historic meeting with Kim Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

No control

Regardless of any political infighting among Trump's national security team, the cancellation of the summit is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to more fundamental problems plaguing this White House, argue the analysts.

"Trump was unable to control his own government and his own policy," said Park. "The Trump administration has never had an integrated policy towards North Korea."  

While Trump's letter to Kim clearly left the door open for a future summit, speculation about such a meeting is futile, noted the scholars, until the White House comes up with a coherent North Korea strategy that includes tangible incentives for Pyongyang.       

Pressure campaign more difficult

Contrary to what Trump implied by saying that Washington would now continue its "maximum pressure campaign" vis-a-vis Pyongyang, things regarding North Korea's nuclear program are not simply back to where they were before the hyped-up summit talk.

"In the short term I think Kim has bought some relief from China and, to some extent, South Korea in sanctions enforcement and the possibility of further UN sanctions," said Pomper.

What's more, he predicted, "the US will find it more challenging to maintain a confrontational stance, particularly if South Koreans view the US rather than North Korea as at fault."