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Trump's North Korea gamble has backfired

von Hein Matthias Kommentarbild App
Matthias von Hein
May 24, 2018

Donald Trump has called off a planned meeting with Kim Jong Un to avoid embarrassment. It's clear that Washington's all-or-nothing approach to peace talks with North Korea has failed, says DW's Matthias von Hein.

USA - Trump sagt Gipfel in Nordkorea ab
Image: picture-alliance/newscom/K. Dietsch

It looks like the United States' Dealmaker-in-Chief won't be bringing peace to the Korean peninsula after all. President Donald Trump's announcement on Thursday came mere hours after North Korea declared the destruction of its Punggye-ri nuclear weapons test site, which is a positive signal, no matter how skeptical one should be.

Trump's decision does not come out of the blue. In recent weeks, the tone between the US and North Korea had become noticeably harsher. And evidence was mounting that the meeting in Singapore would amount to little more than a welcome photo-op for North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

From the very beginning, the US administration overestimated what kind of concession North Korea would be willing to make. That much is clear from US National Security Adviser John Bolton's demand that North Korea unilaterally dismantle its entire nuclear weapons program, for which, in return, it would receive economic relief.

The US all-or-nothing approach backfired. And it didn't help when Bolton, and then on Monday Vice President Mike Pence, touted the "Libya model" for North Korea — in reference to former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003 in return for economic relief, but who in 2011 was deposed and brutally executed by Western-backed rebels. Unsurprisingly, North Korea does not find the "Libya model" all that appealing.     

Washington's assessment that sanctions and military threats had cowed North Korea into seeking talks also proved wrong. The opposite is true: Kim's arsenal of intercontinental missiles and nuclear weapons has imbued him with a bold new confidence that made high-level talks seem alluring.

Matthias von Hein
DW's Matthias von Hein

Meeting would have been coup for Kim

Granted, meeting Trump face-to-face would have been a major coup for Kim. His grandfather as well as his father had both always wanted direct US talks. If Kim would have actually succeeded in overcoming his isolation and sitting down with the US president, it would have been a tremendously prestigious step — especially so if he would have managed to secure a lifting of sanctions and economic aid. But would Kim have surrendered his nuclear arsenal for this, knowing that they are the only insurance he has to keep his family's dynasty in power? Hardly. 

Especially because the US cannot be trusted to keep its word. Gadhafi's demise make that clear, as does Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal

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Hope remains

Hopes for an actual peace agreement that would finally end six decades of armistice between North Korea and South Korea have been dashed — for now. Quite conspicuously, North Korea has refrained from personal attacks on Trump. And Trump's statement canceling the summit did not categorically rule out future talks.  

It should not be forgotten that only last autumn, the Korean peninsula looked like it was on the verge of war after Pyongyang tested several intercontinental missiles, and Washington responded with threats. But Kim's reconciliatory New Year's speech, North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics, and Kim's meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in set a different tone — as did the planned and now canceled high level talks with Trump.

Hopefully, this thawing in relations will not be immediately superseded by another phase of high tensions. It's about time that US and North Korean diplomats pave the way for a meeting between both nations' leaders, because Washington's all-or-nothing approach will lead to just that: nothing.

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