One month ago tomorrow, Donald Trump declared with great pride that North Korean leaders “have agreed to denuclearization.” Even at the time, it was a bizarre thing for the American president to say: Kim Jong-un’s regime had agreed to discuss denuclearization, but Trump made it sound like the negotiations were over and he’d already gotten exactly what he wanted.
White House speechwriters probably had to put aside the Nobel Peace Price draft when North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator said his country would never give up its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief – which is what the Trump administration is offering.
“It doesn’t look like they want to denuclearize at all,” a U.S. official told the Washington Post.
You don’t say. Trump, without any real forethought or strategy, jumped into high-risk negotiations with a rogue nuclear dictatorship. He’s apparently now surprised that his non-existent plan isn’t going well and the experts were right about North Korea’s posture.
The New York Times reports that the American president is seeking advice on whether to proceed with plans for the summit. The article added that White House officials are concerned that Trump has already “signaled that he wants the summit meeting too much,” creating leverage for North Korea, complicated by the fact that the Republican still doesn’t want to do his homework.
The aides are also concerned about what kind of grasp Mr. Trump has on the details of the North Korea program, and what he must insist upon as the key components of denuclearization. Mr. Moon and his aides reported that Mr. Kim seemed highly conversant with all elements of the program when the two men met, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made similar comments about Mr. Kim, based on his two meetings with him in Pyongyang, the North’s capital.
But aides who have recently left the administration say Mr. Trump has resisted the kind of detailed briefings about enrichment capabilities, plutonium reprocessing, nuclear weapons production and missile programs that Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush regularly sat through.
This might be more amusing if the issue weren’t so important.
The NYT’s article is very easy to believe, at least in part because it’s consistent with other accounts. Time reported last week, for example, that Trump hasn’t set aside much time to prepare for the negotiations, because, according to one senior administration official, “He doesn’t think he needs to.”
Similarly, Axios reported in April that, according to a source who has discussed North Korea with the American president, Trump’s position boils down to, “Just get me in the room with the guy [Kim Jong-un] and I’ll figure it out.”
Nuclear diplomacy doesn’t work this way.
What are the potential consequences of Trump’s lack of preparedness? The concern, if the summit happens, is that the North Korean leader will exploit the American amateur’s ignorance, making bad offers that Trump won’t realize are weak. Indeed, the Republican could end up embracing the terms of an agreement he doesn’t understand – if it’s more than a page, would he even read it? – simply out of an irrational desire to claim a political victory.
When dealing with this White House, the common refrain is, “What could possibly go wrong?” The answer, in this case, is, “Plenty.”