Fiorella Beccaglia Opinion Editor
The United States and North Korea offered conflicting accounts and traded blame on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, after the second summit meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un ended abruptly without any agreement on nuclear disarmament or easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. “Sometimes you have to walk,” Trump said at an afternoon news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, where the meeting was held.
Mr. Kim had offered to give up his most important nuclear facility only if the U.S. lifted the rough sanctions imposed on the North, but would not commit to do the same for other elements of its weapons program. That was something that broke the deal for the U.S. “It was about the sanctions,” the President claimed. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that.”
In our last issue I wrote about how the rational position on this heated issue should be that American forces remain in the peninsula for as long as the U.S. and South Korea agree that their presence is in their respective security interests. I think the President did right to walk away rather than accept a bad nuclear agreement. However, this corroborates that he was deceived last year at his first summit with Kim, when they both “fell in love.” I still hope the Korean leader returns in better terms so another deal can be made. Still, there are significant risks ahead. The most important is that, instead of surrendering to the harsh sanctions, North Korea may return to testing weapons. That would renew a huge escalation of tensions and concerns about brinkmanship, mass destruction, and war.
Unfortunately for us, North Korea is not exactly a world leader and it only gets attention when it behaves recklessly. Its leaders have learned that their best strategy is to build nuclear complexes, explode warheads, or fire missiles to make themselves known. While Trump did the right thing in rejecting the North’s proposition, I also think he played his hand poorly in the run-up to the summit. The President indicated that he fervently wanted a deal and that “fantastic success” was likely. I think this led Kim to raise demands in the belief that Trump would fold easily and accept any of the North’s attempts at denuclearizing.
With normal presidents, deals are largely agreed upon before any summit. Diplomats work diligently ahead of time so the president can present them. But Trump has never had much patience for how meticulous the diplomatic process must be, rather placing too much hope and confidence in breakthroughs arising from personal relationships—and his hope was misplaced this time.
It is also distasteful to see Trump praising Kim and referring to him as “my friend” and a “great leader,” and, last year, asserting that Kim had sent him “beautiful letters.” It is perfectly appropriate and necessary to engage with ruthless dictators that are a threat to world security, but displaying exaggerated flattery over them is a betrayal of our values. If the risk is of a return to high tensions ahead, it’s also possible to foresee a path that over time does make progress with North Korea. I tend to agree with skeptics who believe that Kim has no intentions of denuclearizing, but there is still room for diplomacy that leaves the world better off.