The episode of the ‘on/off’ Kim-Trump summit provides a further stark example of the fact that Donald Trump, 16 months into his Presidency, remains an amateur.
The first thing to say is that Donald Trump may have made the right call when he tried to call the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un scheduled for 12th June 2018 off. If he now goes ahead with the summit – for which he is visibly unprepared – he is taking on serious risks.
However the bizarre way in which he called the summit off was extremely damaging, not only making him look unreliable but also damaging his leverage.
It has become increasingly clear over the last few weeks that whilst Kim Jong-un has been preparing for the summit in a careful and methodical way and has a clear set of objectives going forward, Trump does not yet know what he wants the summit to achieve, and heads a team that is bitterly divided and at odds with itself not just about the summit but about relations with North Korea in general.
There have been some vague ideas of Trump offering Kim massive economic aid in return for North Korea’s unilateral nuclear disarmament. Kim however was never going to accept that, and the ideas have anyway never been properly fleshed out.
Trump himself and some of his officials appear to have been prepared to at least consider what was inevitably going to be one of Kim Jong-un’s eventual objectives: the phased though eventually total withdrawal of all US forces from South Korea.
However at other times Trump has himself appeared to rule that out that idea, and the idea is anyway clearly completely unacceptable to the hardliners within his administration, notably his National Security Adviser John Bolton and his Vice-President Mike Pence.
It has in fact become increasingly clear over the last few weeks that the hardliners led by Bolton and Pence don’t think Trump should be negotiating with Kim Jong-un at all.
Compounding their alarm are indications from China of what China and Kim Jong-un want the summit to agree.
This was clearly spelled out in a recent editorial in Global Times, the vehicle the Chinese government increasingly frequently uses to set out its views
What role can a US-North Korea summit play? If it succeeds, it will help consolidate the détente on the Korean Peninsula and prevent the situation from retreating. It should also aim for genuine denuclearization and permanent peace on the peninsula, which is a very complicated mission that requires the participation of multiple parties. If the Trump-Kim meeting could draw up a roadmap and a timetable, that would be a pleasant surprise for the world.
It’s believed that North Korea developed nuclear programs to safeguard the security of its regime. It’s not an easy thing to replace the sense of security that nuclear weapons have brought to Pyongyang with an international guarantee. Washington’s verbal, or even written, commitments are far from enough. The US toppled the Qaddafi and Saddam regimes, and withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement. Americans are always worried about being deceived by the North Koreans. They should seriously consider why Pyongyang should trust Washington.
(bold italics added)
In other words the Chinese and the North Koreans are looking for a “roadmap and timetable” whose end result will be the “genuine denuclearisation” of the Korean Peninsula ie. the complete pullout of all US forces from South Korea, to happen in a phased way alongside the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. In addition they want “permanent peace” in the Korean Peninsula ie. a peace treaty between North and South Korea leading to the establishment of some sort of Korean confederation together with a comprehensive security co-guaranteed by the US and China.
Moreover – as the Global Times editorial shows – the Chinese and the North Koreans are making it clear that mere promises from the US – even if set out in writing – will not suffice.
A security treaty, approved by the UN Security Council accompanied by practical action from the US such as the withdrawal of troops is what is needed.
This is clearly the approach to the proposed Kim-Trump summit the Chinese and the North Koreans discussed and agreed with each other in the two recent summits Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping have held with each other.
This approach is about as far from the unilateral disarmament of North Korea as it is possible to get, and not surprisingly it is totally unacceptable to Bolton and Pence and to the other hardliners in the Trump administration and in the US.
Both Bolton and Pence – perhaps because they do not fully not trust Trump not to go along with these demands – have accordingly been working overtime over the last few weeks to wreck the summit.
They have been doing this by engaging in incendiary talk that the only acceptable outcome for the US is for North Korea to disarm unilaterally in the same way as Libya did.
Worse still, they have even got Trump to join in with them.
Given what happened to Libya after it unilaterally disarmed – attacked by the US, with its leader Muammar Gaddafi tortured and killed in the most brutal and public way – that is not only totally unacceptable to the North Koreans. Talking about it is and is intended to be grossly provocative.
John Bolton, highly experienced in international diplomacy as he is, certainly knows it, and that begs the question of why he publicly talked about it.
The short answer is that he almost certainly hoped that the comments about Libya – especially after Trump appeared to endorse them – would enrage the North Koreans to the point where they would pull out of the summit.
Alternatively, he presumably hoped that by invoking the Libyan precedent as the one North Korea should follow, he would box Trump in.
Instead – and possibly to Bolton’s surprise – the North Koreans not only failed to pull out of the summit, but responded in what is for them a very measured way, spelling out carefully why the Libyan precedent is unacceptable to them.
Their response came in the form of comments made by a senior North Korean diplomat, Choe Son Hui – the same North Korean diplomat who visited Moscow at the outset of the diplomatic process in September and October – and who is reported to have said the following
In case the U.S. offends against our goodwill and clings to unlawful and outrageous acts, I will put forward a suggestion to our supreme leadership for reconsidering the DPRK-U.S. summit.
Whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behaviour of the United States….
We could surmise more than enough what a political dummy [Pence] is as he is trying to compare the DPRK, a nuclear weapon state, to Libya that has simply installed a few items of equipment and fiddled around with them…
To borrow their words, we can also make the U.S. taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined up to now….
In order not to follow in Libya’s footsteps, we paid a heavy price to build up our powerful and reliable strength that can defend ourselves and safeguard peace and security in the Korean Peninsula and the region…
[Choe Son Hui expressed doubt about whether the US has an ulterior motive in seeking dialogue with the DPRK, and] what the U.S. has calculated to gain from that.
It is the U.S. who has asked for dialogue, but now it is misleading the public opinion as if we have invited them to sit with us.
We will neither beg the U.S. for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us….
(bold italics added)
In other words the North Koreans built up their nuclear forces precisely in order to protect themselves from having what was done to Libya being done to them.
There is no possibility of their agreeing to disarm unilaterally as Libya did, precisely because that would risk what was done to Libya being done to them. Their position and Libya’s is anyway not analogous because they have a powerful nuclear arsenal, which Libya never did.
If the US persists in bringing up the subject of Libya it will not force North Korea into making unilateral concessions. It will instead reinforce North Korean doubts about what the US’s real agenda is.
All this is obvious, and no-one – least of all John Bolton – should be surprised at it.
By North Korean standards Choe Son Hui’s comments were very measured: clearly explaining the North Korean position following the gross provocation of Bolton’s and Pence’s Libyan comments.
Moreover the North Koreans continued to give concrete evidence of their good intentions by blowing up their nuclear test site.
What seems to have happened next is that having failed to get the North Koreans to call the summit off, Bolton and possibly Pence got Trump to call it off instead.
Trump seems to have been willing to do this because by now he was having increasing doubts about the summit himself.
The Times of London, which has reliable sources within the White House and which is well informed about Trump’s thinking, in a since deleted comment explains it this way
Mr Pompeo revealed that for several days US officials had not received any response from North Korea on preparations for the summit. It was reported that Mr Trump had become increasingly anguished over whether to go ahead with it, fearing that it would result in political embarrassment
(bold italics added)
Trump’s concerns are by no means unjustified. There is nothing more dangerous in a negotiation conducted at this level than to go into it unprepared with opinion at home and within the administration divided.
That would not only risk the collapse of the summit in circumstances where Trump would be blamed for the failure, but might also risk exposing him to a situation where he felt under pressure to agree to concessions which go beyond what his base at home is prepared to accept.
A classic example of how that can happen at a summit to which one of the parties goes unprepared is the second Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik in 1986, where Reagan came very close to signing up to Gorbachev’s proposal that all nuclear weapons everywhere should be eliminated within a set time period.
Though that would have delighted the peace campaigners, it was totally unacceptable to the US and Western political and military leaderships, and would have been immediately repudiated as soon as Reagan returned home.
The political damage to Reagan if he had agreed would have been immense, and his reputation would never have recovered.
As it was the loss of confidence in Reagan was profound, facilitating the Iran-Contra scandal which followed shortly after.
Given that this is so, Trump’s decision to call off a summit which has split his administration and for which he is clearly unprepared actually makes sense.
However if the decision makes sense, the same cannot be said for the bizarre way he announced it.
The proper way to pull out of a summit like this would have been to inform the North Koreans privately first, saying to them that because of continuing differences the US was not yet ready for the summit, and that the summit would therefore have to be postponed for a few months until the US was ready.
Once the North Koreans had been so informed, the Chinese and the South Koreans should have been informed also. The proper way to do it would have been by way of telephone calls by Trump to China’s and South Korea’s leaders, Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in, explaining the reasons why the US needed a postponement.
Complete honesty about those reasons would have been the best policy. No-one – not the North Koreans or the Chinese or the South Koreans – would have thought less of Trump because of them.
The decision to postpone – not cancel – the summit could then have been made public, with a brief announcement explaining that the differences between the US and North Korea were still too wide for a summit to be usefully held at this time.
The announcement would however have emphasised that the US remains committed to dialogue, and that the summit had been postponed and was not cancelled.
Not only would that have been the proper way to pull out of the summit. It would have preserved the US’s reputation and leverage intact.
The US could then have gone away and prepared for the summit properly, sorting out its own negotiating position whilst continuing to discuss things bilaterally though at a lower level with the North Koreans.
Instead Trump not only announced the cancellation of the summit without first informing the North Koreans, the South Koreans or the Chinese, but he also published a bizarre and self-justifying personal letter, which he addressed to Kim Jong-un himself, referring to him as “His Excellency”
THE WHITE HOUSE
May 24 2018
His Excellency Kim Jong Un
Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Dear Mr Chairman:
We greatly appreciate your time, patience, and effort with respect to our recent negotiations and discussions relative to a summit long sought by both parties, which was scheduled to take place on June 12 in Singapore. We were informed that the meeting was requested by North Korea, but that to us is totally irrelevant. I was very much looking forward to being there with you. Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting. Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place. You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.
I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters. Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you. In the meantime, I want to thank you for the release of the hostages who are now home with their families. That was a beautiful gesture and was very much appreciated.
If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write. The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth. This missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history.
Donald J Trump
President of the United States of America
The US government has confirmed that Trump dictated the entirety of this letter himself and its strange wording – alternatively fawning, pleading, and threatening – in fact bears his unmistakeable imprint.
All too obviously the letter seeks to shift responsibility for the decision to call off the summit from Trump onto Kim Jong-un.
Not only is that unworthy given that the decision to call off the summit was unquestionably Trump’s, but it was also unnecessary given that Trump had perfectly proper reasons for wanting to postpone the summit.
The letter then compounded the damage by saying something which is not even true, which is that the summit was cancelled because of “the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement”.
Kim has in fact made no recent statement. Presumably what Trump is referring to is the comments made by Choe Son Hui. However those comments were not only by North Korean standards measured; they were an unavoidable response to the grossly provocative comments referring to Libya made by Bolton, Pence and Trump himself.
Presumably because this explanation for calling off the summit is so obviously inadequate, Trump and his officials in the hours after the letter was published started hunting around for other more convincing explanations to explain it,
Thus there have been attempts to claim that what caused the summit to collapse was the failure of the North Koreans to turn up to a pre summit logistics meeting in Singapore. Apparently the US came to this meeting and was annoyed when the North Koreans failed to show up.
The implication presumably is that the North Korean no-show evinces a lack of sincerity on the part of the North Koreans about the summit.
However the North Korean no-show at the logistics meeting was not the reason for calling off the summit given by Donald Trump in his letter. That all but confirms that it was not the true reason why the summit was called off.
Besides the North Korean no-show was properly speaking a cause for a strong complaint to be sent to Pyongyang; not for calling the whole summit off.
As it happens the North Koreans probably intended the no-show as a discrete way of emphasising their annoyance at Bolton’s and Pence’s Libya comments.
In other words what the North Koreans almost certainly intended as a firm but discrete message meant to get the dialogue back on track was instead used to justify calling the whole dialogue off.
The other excuse for calling off the summit was that it was China’s fault.
It is no secret that the US was annoyed that Xi Jinping hosted Kim Jong-un for a second summit meeting before the summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un had taken place.
Global Times, in the same editorial which I quoted earlier, has expressed China’s incredulity about this
To promote a successful Kim-Trump summit, efforts should be made to create more trust among relevant parties. Trump expressed his dissatisfaction at Kim’s second visit to China again, insinuating that the China factor has resulted in Pyongyang’s shift in attitude. It reflects Washington’s derailed train of thought. Both Washington and Seoul are willing to hold a summit with and offer assistance to Pyongyang, but will they take a friendly attitude to Pyongyang in the long run? North Korea doesn’t believe so. Only China’s long-term support for Pyongyang is reliable.
In truth the Chinese should have been prepared for this US reaction in advance. The sight of Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping conferring together as best of friends on the eve of a summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and the US President was inevitably going to go down badly in Washington where it was bound to be seen as a case of China double-crossing the US by taking the heat off Kim Jong-un in advance of the summit with the US President.
Not for the first time the Chinese – long shielded from having to deal with the US on geopolitical issues by their habit of subcontracting the job out to the Russians – seem to have been taken aback by US oversensitivity to one of their moves.
Now Trump is saying that the result of the second North Korean-Chinese summit is that China has relaxed enforcement of the sanctions on North Korea. The result supposedly was a hardening of North Korea’s position in advance of Kim Jong-un’s meeting with Trump
“I will say I’m a little disappointed, because when Kim Jong Un had the meeting with President Xi in China . . . I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong Un. So I don’t like that. I don’t like it from the standpoint of China,” said Mr Trump, referring to a meeting between Mr Xi and Mr Kim in the Chinese city of Dalian earlier this month.
Mr Trump then added that the China-North Korea border — a vital trade route for the reclusive regime — had recently “opened up” despite US efforts to economically isolate and punish North Korea.
North Korea’s summit threats bode ill for nuclear deal “Every time I talk to China about trade, I’m thinking about the border. Because that border is a very important element in what we’re doing,” he said.
There is in fact no evidence that the second summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping has caused the North Koreans to modify their negotiating at all.
Donald Trump has not said how the North Koreans are supposed to have hardened their position since the second meeting between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping. It is in fact hardly plausible that they have. However for a President short of excuses this was an obvious excuse to come up with.
The blame casting in Trump’s letter and in his subsequent comments, with the terrible impression it gives of a President unwilling to take responsibility for his own decisions, is made worse by the extraordinary reference in the letter to the overwhelming power of the US nuclear arsenal.
You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.
These words seem to have been intended as a response to the comments about the power of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal made by Choe Son Hui.
However Choe Son Hui’s comments were intended to emphasise the contrast between the non-existence of Libya’s nuclear arsenal and the reality of the nuclear arsenal which North Korea has built up. After Bolton, Pence and Trump himself had compared North Korea with Libya Choe Son Hui’s comments about the power of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal were an obvious rejoinder.
By contrast Trump’s comments in his letter look much more like what at a certain level they were surely intended to be: a threat that North Korea risks its very existence if it does not capitulate to US demands.
The impression – of a US President threatening a small country with destruction unless it does what he says – could not be worse. This at precisely the moment when the North Koreans had given positive evidence of their good intentions by blowing up their nuclear test site.
All in all this was an appalling letter, capping a dreadfully mishandled affair.
Meanwhile the US’s ally South Korean President Moon Jae-in – who foolishly spoke of Trump deserving the Nobel Peace Prize – appeared to have been left high and dry. Not surprisingly the South Koreans are said to be furious
President Trump’s decision to cancel his summit with the North Korean leader has provoked anger in South Korea.
President Moon invested much political capital and personal energy into brokering talks between Mr Trump and Kim Jong-un, but is now facing growing scrutiny over whether he oversold Pyongyang’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons.
“I am very perplexed and it is very regrettable that the North Korea-US summit will not be held on June 12 when it was scheduled to be held,” a glum-faced Mr Moon said during an emergency meeting with senior ministers and aides at the presidential office late last night.
On the streets of Seoul, however, some South Korean citizens were not as diplomatic about Mr Trump’s decision to pull the plug on the Singapore summit. Dozens of university students and women’s rights activists protested in rallies in Seoul today to denounce the president, with some punching his face printed on a picket sign and tearing up his photograph.
“North Korea was in the process of doing everything that had been demanded of it. They even detonated their nuclear test site,” office worker Eugene Lim, 29, told Reuters. “Trump has no interest in peace in our country. Why can’t he just let us, the two Koreas, live in peace?”
Kim Dong-ho, 38, said: “Those of us living on the Korean peninsula suffer the consequences of your action, you Yankee!”
As for China, a strongly worded editorial in Global Times makes the extent of China’s exasperation with the Trump administration completely clear
US President Donald Trump on Thursday called off a planned summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, just hours after Pyongyang had followed through on its pledge to demolish their nuclear test site.
Referring to the scheduled June 12 meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump informed the North Korean leader, “Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it would be inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”
It is necessary to observe how Trump did not mention their meeting would be postponed, but instead canceled it altogether in such an incontestable manner with the letter….
On Thursday, North Korea confirmed that it had demolished its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, marking a significant step toward Korean Peninsula denuclearization.
Punggye-ri is the only known site in North Korea where all six of their nuclear tests were conducted.
Shackled by its limited territory and natural resources, it would be difficult for North Korea to create a similar nuclear test facility. It is also unlikely they would reopen the Punggye-ri site as reconstruction would be an almost impossible endeavor.
Trump canceled the June summit hours after North Korea had demolished its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The time difference may have inspired Pyongyang to think Trump’s public announcement was delivered “on purpose” and could result in North Korea moving to its next anger phase.
Pyongyang had shown its utmost sincerity by demolishing the nuclear test site. It was a turning point where North Korea could replace their confrontational policies with concerted efforts aimed at working with international communities to resolve Korean Peninsula issues.
Besides, North Korea had already committed itself to the idea that there would be no more nuclear or long-range missiles tests.
Although the cessation of their nuclear weapons program will not be considered the same as a comprehensive denuclearization effort as there is a long way to go before that goal is achieved, but North Korea is still welcomed for making the announcement.
Trump’s sudden summit cancelation will impact the alleviated situation on the Peninsula. Within the past few weeks, North Korea released three American hostages, and then weakened its nuclear weapons program by destroying the Punggye-ri test site.
In the future, challenges will impede progress when promoting Peninsula denuclearization. The US could have easily received what it wanted through diplomacy.
The cancellation of the Trump-Kim summit happened at a time when progress was already underway, and now difficult tasks will lie ahead for foreign affairs officials hoping to advance to the next stage.
America’s national image has been damaged ever since Trump announced his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. The cancellation of the Singapore meeting will only enhance their negative image, regardless of any explanation provided by Washington.
In other words the Chinese not only reject the explanations for cancelling the summit given by Trump.
They consider that North Korea would be entitled to see in them proof of the US’s bad faith, and are perfectly clear that in light of the US’s actions any US proposal for further sanctions against North Korea is a non-starter.
North Korea has been able to achieve a few goals during the recent months. Pyongyang has successfully improved relations with China and South Korea, and the world has learned more about North Korea’s leader through the Xi-Kim and Kim-Moon meetings. North Korea has also acknowledged to the world the logic behind their actions, and the dark secret of the West defaming North Korea was revealed. The factors will have an important foreshadowing effect on North Korea’s return to the international community.
The renewed confrontation between the US and North Korea could threaten peace and stability on the Peninsula. It would be wise for both sides to exercise a level of restraint and avoid using excessive action against one another.
It is imperative the US and North Korea avoid escalating conflicts. Even if they are unable to achieve their desired results, they should at least work hard to prevent the worst situation from happening.
China will continue to improve and develop friendly relations with North Korea as they stopped testing nuclear weapons and offered assurances on denuclearization. China would like to see South Korea value the hard-earned alleviated Peninsula situation and make contributions on prevention efforts aimed at the US as it reignites extreme military initiatives against North Korea.
Trump’s decision Thursday has confused all parties involved with the Korean Peninsula issue. The move also creates a paradox for Washington. Both countries need to remain calm and should remind each other that irresponsible behavior can have unpredictable consequences.
(bold italics added)
Since sanctions – and Chinese enforcement of the sanctions – is the only leverage over North Korea that the US has, the sum total of what has been achieved by this affair is that it has damaged the US’s leverage in advance of what now looks to be the once more ‘on’ again summit with Kim Jong-un.
These expressions of anger from Beijing and Seoul are all very well, but do they actually change anything? Will the North Koreans, the Chinese and the South Koreans be forced eventually to bend to the US’s will, as the Europeans will ultimately have to do following the US’s pullout from the JCPOA?
That I am sure is John Bolton’s calculation. In all the various conflicts around the world he always assumes that the US’s power means that its will will eventually always prevail.
Moreover he is not the only person in the US to think in this way. Repeatedly, whenever the subject of the Korean conflict comes up, I always find that Americans I discuss it with – even those who are very critical of US policy – always assume the same, and find it conceptually impossible to imagine that South Korea might one day decide to come to terms with North Korea without the prior permission of the US.
In my opinion this is a fundamental error, which risks causing the US to overplay its hand.
Back in the 1990s and the early 2000s it was true, with the US at that time the unchallenged world hyperpower and the South Koreans with no option other than to do the bidding of the US. However that is no longer the case.
I discussed all this at great length on 22nd October 2017, in an article for The Duran in which I explained the early diplomatic moves to resolve the Korean crisis which were then – for anyone interested in seeing them – already visibly underway, and the role the Russians were playing in them
If the US persists in its present posture – saying it is ready to talk to North Korea but refusing to do so, saying it has no plans for regime change in North Korea but refusing to give North Korea any security guarantees, saying North Korea must disarm but ruling out any withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula, criticising Kim Jong-un for imposing hardships on North Korea’s people and then searching for ways to increase the hardship which is inflicted on them, and demanding that China solve the Korean crisis for the US without the US giving anything in return – then sooner or later the point will come when the Russians will tell the South Koreans that the biggest obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the crisis in the Korean Peninsula is not North Korea but the US.
At that point the Russians will no doubt point out to the South Koreans that they have a far greater interest in a peaceful settlement of the crisis than the US does, since a failure to resolve the crisis is putting the future survival not just of North Korea but also of South Korea and of the whole Korean nation at risk.
At that point the Russians will no doubt also point out to the South Koreans that it is in their hands to end the Korean crisis by coming to terms directly with North Korea, and that they do not actually need the US to achieve this.
It is not after all as if the contours of a possible Korean settlement are difficult to see: a non-aggression pact between the two Koreas, a withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula, and an agreement by North Korea that it give up its weapons in return for formal security guarantees from the Great Powers (in this case this means the two Eurasian Great Powers, Russia and China).
There is no logical reason why any of this should require the agreement of the US, and if the two Koreas were to agree to this the US would not be in a position to prevent it.
(bold italics added)
At the time when I wrote those words I expected that it would take roughly a year before direct talks between the two Koreas without the involvement of the US got started. In the event it took just a few weeks.
To repeat again, there is no reason why an agreement to settle the Korean conflict between North Korea and South Korea requires the agreement of the US.
If North Korea and South Korea sign a peace treaty with each other how can the US object? How in that case can the US insist that sanctions against North Korea remain in place if the North Koreans commit themselves under that treaty to dismantle their nuclear weapons? How, if because of the treaty the South Koreans tell the US troops in South Korea to leave, can the US keep them in place?
Moreover if simultaneously with that treaty the North Koreans obtain security guarantees from China how can the US object to that?
Last but not least, if the North Koreans and the South Koreans as part of the Korean settlement decide to forge a Korean confederation with each other – a proposal which has been floating around for decades, but which has recently been given renewed life – how can the US object to that either?
Once upon a time the US could have blocked such moves by pulling various levers it has within South Korea. Not so long ago – up to the 1980s in fact – South Korea was a military dictatorship all but run by the US. Not for nothing did the North Koreans in those days call the South Korean government in Seoul a “puppet government”.
That is the case no longer. Today South Korea is a vibrant democracy. US meddling in South Korean politics in order to block a rapprochement between North Korea and South Korea would have a disastrous effect if it were attempted today. Anyone who visits South Korea with an open mind will quickly realise that.
It is in fact the inter-Korean dialogue brokered by the Russians and the Chinese which is actually driving the diplomatic process. To an extent which I think many people in Washington still struggle to understand, North Korea’s dialogue with the US is by contrast a sideshow, though one which because of the power of the US remains obviously an important one.
The truth of that was shown by the North Korean response to Trump’s announcement that he had called off the summit.
Kim Jong-un immediately arranged a follow up meeting with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in during which the two Korean leaders recommitted themselves to a rapprochement with each other.
In the immediate aftermath of that meeting Trump appeared to reverse course, so that it now looks as if the Singapore summit is now back on again.
There could not be a better demonstration that it is the Koreans North and South who are in the driving seat than that.
In summary, this bizarre episode illustrates again Donald Trump’s strange mix of strengths and weaknesses as he tries to manage the US’s foreign policy.
He has repeatedly shown a better instinct on issue after issue than many of his supposedly more experienced officials.
Where the professionals in the State Department did not want him to rush into a meeting with Kim Jong-un he appears to have grasped that unless he did so the US risked being left behind in a process over which the US ultimately has little control.
However he remains inexperienced and unsure, leaving him vulnerable to manipulation by those around him, and with a need to justify himself on occasions when he has no need to do so.
The result is that though he senses that he is drifting into a summit with Kim Jong-un for which he is unprepared, he doesn’t know how to postpone it or call it off, with the result that his attempt to call it off, instead of resulting in the summit being called off, has instead only managed to damage his leverage in advance of it.
Donald Trump remains fortunate in one thing. Asian leaders who have met with him have responded positively to the warmth of his personality and like him. They also understand that he is an amateur. For that reason they are prepared to overlook and pardon mistakes from him that they would never have tolerated if they had been made by his arrogant and aloof predecessor, Barack Obama.
Whether that will suffice to get Trump through a summit with Kim Jong-un – who despite his youth has emerged as a consummate diplomat, obviously carefully groomed in statecraft by his father – remains to be seen.