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 President 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.