The US government’s plans to prevent nuclear
proliferation have moved from the merely incoherent to positively chaotic
following President Donald J. Trump’s flip-flop over a proposed summit with
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Singapore this month. In May he aborted the treaty
his predecessor Barack Obama negotiated in concert with the European Union to
halt Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme in return for a lifting of economic
sanctions. In one short step Trump returned Iran to the cold and undermined the
moderate regime of President Hassan Rouhani. It was also a body blow to
relations with the European Union and other sponsors of the accord.
On May 24, Trump announced that his summit with Kim was off after a particularly blistering tirade by North Korea against US cabinet officials including Vice-President Mike Pence. So Trump wrote, “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 meeting.” It was a head-spinning moment and the reaction from South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office echoed the sense of stupefaction. “We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means,” his spokesman said. Moon’s national security adviser had put the chances of a summit at 99.9 per cent. Two days later, Trump was singing a different tune. Pyongyang had been in touch with the White House, he said, and the summit may yet happen, even on June 12, the original tentative date for the meeting.
No one knows if this “I’ll see you, no I won’t, yes I might” diplomacy will work. It has never been tested but Kim might feel he can relax. He was under immense pressure after September 3, 2017 when his government claimed it had successfully tested a miniaturised hydrogen bomb that could be loaded on a long-range missile. Coming on top of its numerous missile tests over the last couple of years even China, its closest ally, was moved to protest, albeit silently. It did not object to the February 23 announcement of stronger sanctions by the US government.
Whatever happens, whether they meet or not, Kim is highly unlikely to jettison his nuclear arsenal, which is what John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, is demanding. It is Kim’s only guarantee against a coup or external aggression. Why, then, did he offer to meet Trump in March and discuss nuclear disarmament? Most probably it was another attempt to start a process billed as disarmament and drag it out, as his father did with the Bush administration.
Trump, on the other hand, encouraged the notion that when he got up from the table it would be with an agreement to disarm and that Pyongyang would hand over its nukes. The White House communications agency even struck a limited run of challenge coins with Trump and Kim facing each other in profile. Trump had mused about a Nobel Prize for bringing peace to the Korean peninsula.
Perhaps Kim found these expansive expectations unnerving, or maybe it was talk of the “Libya model”, first voiced by John Bolton, if North Korea refused to comply. It is hard to say what comes next, but perhaps Trump should take a look at his allies who are twisting in the wind. They come last of all in his calculations and so far all they have got is the finger. There are eerie reminders of the way his businesses went belly up after months of being talked up as great, solid, winners, and so on. But when they unravelled he just walked away, leaving others to pick up the pieces. The problem is he can’t do that here. There is no one else; he is the President of the United States of America. Maybe it’s a realisation that dawned suddenly. The world’s biggest mover and shaker doesn’t just pout and fold when things get tough. This may be his version of cobbling a plan B. It is, of course, equally possible that Kim’s emissaries have signalled a willingness to meet. As Trump seems to have given up on his expansive expectations the North Koreans may see no harm in a summit. As for Trump, well, there are all those commemorative to coins to distribute.
In his cancellation letter of May 24, Trump had boasted, “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.” So does everyone else watching the greatest show on earth.