Now we enter a more dangerous period in relations with North Korea.
President Donald Trump topped a particularly inept diplomatic period by canceling his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The previous policy of maximum economic pressure on North Korea may no longer be viable, so the risk is that Trump ends up reaching for the military toolbox.
As every president since Richard Nixon – except for Trump – has realized, the military options are too dangerous to employ. That’s even more true today, when North Korea apparently has the capacity to use nuclear, chemical and biological weapons against Seoul, Tokyo and perhaps Los Angeles. Yet Pentagon officials seem deeply nervous that Trump doesn’t realize this and has a Kim-like appetite for brinkmanship in ways that create risks of a cataclysm.
It was at least a relief that Trump, in canceling the summit, didn’t slam the door on diplomacy. “I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting,” he wrote Kim in a letter, in a tone more of regret than anger. He added: “Some day, I very much look forward to meeting you.”
He added that South Korea and Japan are “ready should foolish or reckless acts be taken by North Korea.”
Trump apparently canceled both because of recent North Korean belligerent rhetoric, including denunciations of Vice President Mike Pence, and because it grew clear that North Korea wasn’t planning on giving up its nuclear weapons any time soon. There was some political risk that Trump would look foolish reaching a general agreement with North Korea that was much less significant and onerous than the one he tore up with Iran.
The Trump statement leaves open the possibility that South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been the crucial figure in the peace process, can put Humpty Dumpty together again, so that a meeting could be held later this year. Indeed, if the cancellation now leads to working-level talks between U.S. and North Korean officials, that would be progress.
The risk, though, is that we’re back to confrontation.
I hope that North Korea will respond to Trump’s letter in similarly measured, calm terms. But no one has ever made money betting on North Korean calmness.
North Korea could decide to create a new crisis, perhaps by conducting a missile test or an atmospheric nuclear test. If such an atmospheric test were conducted in the northern Pacific, that could send radiation toward the U.S. and would be perceived in Washington as a great provocation.
Likewise, the U.S. could respond to new tensions by sending B-1 bombers off the coast of North Korea. If North Korea scrambled aircraft or fired anti-aircraft missiles, we could very quickly have an enormous escalation.
So look out. We may be headed for a game of chicken, with Trump and Kim at the wheel. And all the rest of us are in the back seat.
In any case, it will be difficult for Trump to return to his policy of strangling North Korea economically. China has already been quietly relaxing sanctions, and South Korea may not have the stomach for strong sanctions either. Kim has met with the leaders of both China and South Korea in recent months, building ties and reducing his isolation, and I expect he’ll continue the outreach to both countries.
Some Republicans have praised Trump for his North Korea diplomacy, and there’s been talk about him winning a Nobel Peace Prize. That was always ludicrous, and his North Korea policy is in fact a fine example of ineptitude.
Here’s what actually happened.
Trump’s jingoistic rhetoric didn’t particularly intimidate North Korea, but it terrified South Korea, which feared it would be collateral damage in a new Korean War. So Moon shrewdly used the Olympics to undertake a careful peace mission to bring the U.S. and North Korea together, flattering each side to make this happen (Moon is a world-class Trump flatterer, and other leaders around the world have noted his success). This was commendable on Moon’s part; he’s the one who genuinely did have a shot at the peace prize.
As I wrote at the time, however, it was a mistake when Trump rashly accepted the idea of a summit without any careful preparations. The risk of starting a diplomatic process with a summit is that if talks collapse at the top, then it’s difficult to pick up at a lower level. That’s precisely what ended up happening, and this dynamic creates greater risk than ever of military conflict.
With different aides, Trump might have pulled it off. While Trump and his fans were always deluded about the possibility that North Korea would hand over its nuclear weapons any time soon, there was some possibility of a general statement about starting a dialogue about denuclearization. North Korea would destroy some intercontinental ballistic missiles, tensions would drop, and we’d all be better off even if denuclearization never actually happened. Yes, Trump would have been played, but the world would still have benefited from the peace process.
Yet John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, spoke up in ways calculated to unnerve the North Koreans, by talking about the Libya model. When you cite as a model a country whose leader then ended up being executed by his own people, that’s not usually persuasive to another dictator. On my most recent visit to North Korea, in September, officials cited the Libyan experience as one reason they needed to hold on to their nuclear weapons.
North Korean leaders themselves responded to Bolton’s comments with harsh, over-the-top rhetoric, including the comment about Pence. This was a major miscalculation on their part, escalating the ineptitude and helping to kill the summit.
While the North Koreans didn’t get the summit they wanted with Trump, they have managed the process quite well. They used the rush of diplomacy to rebuild ties with Beijing and start discussions about economic integration with South Korea, and to moderate their international image. They’ve also created something of a wedge between Washington and Seoul, as was apparent in the response to Trump’s cancellation by a South Korean government spokesman: “We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means.”
In weighing the risks ahead, commentators sometimes note that Kim is rational and doesn’t want to commit suicide. That’s true, but doesn’t particularly encourage me. Rational actors regularly make awful decisions. Saddam Hussein wasn’t suicidal, and neither was George W. Bush, but they both acted in ways in Iraq that were catastrophic.
Both Trump and Kim would still like to make a summit happen. So I’m hoping for the best, but fearing for the worst.
Nicholas Kristof can be contacted at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.