The North Korea Debacle

So much going on with Trump it’s hard to keep track. While I’m digesting what’s going on with the various Michael Cohen and Trump Junior scandals blowing up in Trump’s face, let’s look at North Korea.

FYI, the BBC just reported that North Korea has stopped talking to South Korea.

North Korea says it will not resume talks with the South until issues between the two countries are resolved.

Its chief negotiator dismissed the South Korean authorities as incompetent and senseless. Pyongyang is angry at continuing US-South Korea joint military exercises. …

…He also criticised the South Korean authorities for allowing “human scum” (a reference to a North Korean defector) to speak at the Seoul National Assembly.

The joint exercises have been going on for a long time, and few believe that’s the real reason North Korea is pissed off. The real reason is that John Bolton flapped his mouth on Face the Nation and said that the U.S. would follow the “Libya model” in treating North Korea.

Paul Waldman wrote yesterday,

Here’s where we see how Trump is being played from the other side, most specifically by his new national security adviser, John Bolton. Bolton, who has long advocated that we start bombing North Korea at the earliest possible opportunity, made a point of saying publicly that we should look as a model to the arrangement made with Libya in 2003, in which it gave up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief and a reintegration into the international community.

Which, if you knew nothing about anything, might sound perfectly fine. But to the North Koreans, there’s almost nothing more provocative you could say than bringing up Libya. North Korean officials regularly cite the experience of Libya as precisely the reason they won’t give up their nuclear weapons. Moammar Gaddafi did so, and what happened to him? He was deposed and killed. The same fate befell Saddam Hussein.

Now, Bolton is many things, but stupid and ignorant are not among them. He knew perfectly well how the North Koreans would react if he brought up Libya.

We can quibble about whether Bolton is or isn’t stupid and ignorant, but the point is that Bolton appeared to be deliberately shooting down any possibility that an accomodation will be made with North Korea. And Trump, of course, is too stupid to see he’s being played by his own man.

And then there’s this:

Vipin Narang, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it was likely to be the bragging that Kim had been forced to the table by Trump’s successful use of “maximum pressure” with sanctions and threats that had stung the Pyongyang regime most.

Kim has portrayed his diplomatic opening as a natural consequence of completing the decades-long project to build a nuclear arsenal.

“The North Koreans were prepared to ignore a lot of what the administration said before the summit, but it was the victory lap before the race that has really set them off,” Narang said.

If you have any idea what Kim Jong Un really wants, this makes sense.

What does Kim want? Economic assistance and an end to sanctions, obviously. He also wants a summit alongside the leader of the global hegemon, which would grant him enormous prestige. That’s something the United States has withheld from North Korea in the past, but Trump has already granted it. And above all, Kim wants to ensure his own survival and that of his regime.

Which is why most everyone except Trump seems to realize that there is no way Kim is going to give up his nuclear weapons, which he sees — quite rationally — as a guarantee against foreign invasion or a move to depose him.

The last thing Kim wants is any loss of face with his own people, or other Asian nations.

The Panmunjom Declaration recently signed by the two Korean leaders was partly designed to create “the optics of success for Trump.” I’m sure they were also intended to create the optics of success for Kim.

But Trump started celebrating a tad prematurely:

Since the moment he agreed on a whim to a summit between himself and Kim Jong Un, President Trump has been almost giddy about the breakthrough he’s about to achieve, even musing about his upcoming Nobel Peace Prize.

But like everything about being president, it’s turning out to be more complicated than Trump understands.

The release of North American prisoners also was a gift to Trump.  A good quasi-Confucian would have receprocated with humble and conciliatory language, at least, but that’s not a game Trump knows how to play. Trump’s bragging and Bolton’s “Libya” comments were not what Pyongyang expected. I suspect the only thing that might save the Singapore summit is if Trump did some ritual groveling now. I’m not holding my breath.