“I don’t think he’s playing. The United States has been played beautifully, like a fiddle, because you had a different kind of a leader. We’re not going to be played, okay?”
— President Trump, speaking of Kim Jong Un, April 27
Actually, Trump has been played from the start — and he’s the only one who doesn’t know it. His dealings with North Korea have been a master class in self-deception.
On March 8, Trump agreed on the spur of the moment to meet with Kim, thereby putting the dictator of this two-bit police state on the same level as the U.S. president, without any guarantee that he would get anything in return. In the run-up to the summit, Trump acted as if Kim had already “agreed to denuclearization (so great for World),” and his groupies in Congress nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize.
North Korea soon made clear it had little interest in pursuing the Libyan model of disarmament, leading Trump to temporarily call off the summit on May 24. But within little more than a week, the meeting was back on, because Trump was so transparently desperate for a foreign policy achievement.
In Singapore on June 12, Trump praised Kim to the skies (“a very talented” and “very smart” man who “loves his country very much”) and claimed they had developed “a very special bond.” He even agreed to unilaterally suspend U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. And in return, Kim gave … essentially nothing. No accounting of North Korea’s nuclear program, no agreement for international inspections, no schedule for dismantlement. Nothing beyond an easily reversible halt to nuclear and missile tests and the same empty promise to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” that the Kim family has been making since the 1990s.
Trump nevertheless tweeted, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” — a proclamation that will rank with Neville Chamberlain’s boast that his 1938 Munich meeting with Adolf Hitler delivered “peace for our time.” At least Chamberlain had the good grace not to salute any SS generals. Trump, by contrast, was caught saluting a North Korean general.
In the month since the Swindle in Singapore, it has become obvious that Kim is arming rather than disarming. On June 29, NBC News reported that, according to U.S. intelligence officials, North Korea was increasing production of fuel for nuclear weapons and working to conceal its activities from the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then canceled a meeting with the Indian foreign minister to fly off to Pyongyang, presumably to tell the North Koreans that they had better start delivering on their promises.
Pompeo left North Korea on Saturday humiliated and empty-handed. Unlike during his two previous trips to Pyongyang, Pompeo did not get an audience with “Chairman Kim.” He was shunted off to a lower-level Kim — former intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol — and sent on his way with the North Koreans denouncing his “gangster-like” and “cancerous” demands for nuclear disarmament.
While the United States has seemingly dropped its previous demand for “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” North Korea’s position remains what it has always been. It will perhaps consider giving up its nuclear weapons but only if it receives some kind of “security guarantees” that would presumably include the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. North Korea didn’t even make good on its promise to repatriate the remains of Korean War POWs/MIAs.
Trump is left to hope, in vain, that “Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake.” (How many contractors said the same thing about Trump!) He now claims that simply having “conversations” with North Korea is some kind of victory, because the United States has avoided war. Left unsaid is that it was Trump himself who raised the risk of war with his threats of “fire and fury.” Now he wants credit for veering from warmongering to appeasement.
While Trump has not formally lifted sanctions, notes Sue Mi Terry of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, his glorification of Kim has sent a signal to other countries in Asia — and in particular, China — that there is no longer a need to strictly enforce them. Why not trade with a nation that, according to Trump, no longer poses a nuclear threat? The “maximum pressure” policy is now “minimum pressure,” with the website NK Pro reporting that 10 companies on the China-North Korea border have just reopened and that tourism to North Korea is booming. With Trump waging an ill-advised trade war against China, Beijing now has less incentive than ever to help the United States by pressuring Pyongyang, as Trump himself acknowledges.
Kim has played Trump like a Stradivarius. He has gotten everything he wanted — sanctions relaxation, international legitimation — without giving up anything in return. Vladimir Putin must be licking his chops. If Trump was fleeced so thoroughly by a tyro tyrant whom he was denouncing as recently as the beginning of this year, imagine how much he will give up to a veteran despot for whom he has had nothing but praise.
Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.”