The Trump Administration’s Confusion and the North Korea Summit
This New York Timesreport on Trump’s reaction to recent North Korean moves confirms that the president badly misunderstood the North Korean position all along:
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.
Trump should not have been surprised by this, but his usual combination of vanity and ignorance set him up for a fall. He didn’t know that North Korea wouldn’t accept the administration’s demands because he doesn’t understand the relevant issues or definitions (and isn’t bothering to learn them), and he spent the last several weeks congratulating himself for extracting “concessions” from Kim than had never happened and weren’t forthcoming. The North Korean and U.S. positions were and still are far apart, but Trump agreed to the summit because he wrongly believed that North Korea was prepared to capitulate.
The administration’s recent celebratory rhetoric about the effectiveness of the “maximum pressure” campaign strengthens the impression that no one in the administration has understood what was going on. It is an indictment of Trump’s entire national security team, especially Bolton and Pompeo, that it took Trump this long to understand the North Korean position correctly. It is only now beginning to dawn on them that North Korea’s position isn’t what they thought it was, but they still don’t grasp that their position has remained the same and the administration officials are the ones who have failed to pick up on it until now.
Going into the summit with unrealistic expectations was always dangerous, because those expectations were sure to be disappointed and diplomatic engagement would suffer a serious setback. If the Trump administration realizes this and corrects for its earlier error, the summit might not be a complete waste. As long as Trump remains wedded to the fantasy of “complete, verifiiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” he is not going to have any success in Singapore next month. Then again, considering how little effort the president is making to prepare for the summit it is doubtful that the summit will yield anything of value.