Reversal Over North Korea Summit Impulsive, Astounding

Jesse Jackson | 6/1/2018, 7:52 a.m.
President Donald Trump torpedoed the summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in a letter he dictated that was ...

President Donald Trump torpedoed the summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in a letter he dictated that was virtually incoherent.

The question now is whether the shoddy, impulsive, neck-snapping reversals of the White House will spark a new round of threats and a new crisis, or whether the opening that had seemed so promising can be continued in other ways.

Trump astounded the established diplomatic corps when he suddenly announced that he would meet with the North Korean leader in a summit. I defended Trump against the punditry, arguing that it is always better to talk than to issue threats, to find areas of common ground rather than prepare targets for attack. The summit, Trump said, would seek to get North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions and, presumably, security guarantees.

North Korea made a series of gestures designed to build confidence. It released three American prisoners, which Trump called a "beautiful gesture" in his letter calling off the summit. It pledged that it would halt nuclear and missile tests. On the very day Trump pulled the plug on the summit, North Korea invited foreign journalists to witness the blowing up of its nuclear weapons testing site.

Yet from the beginning the exchange seemed unreal. Trump claimed that the North Korean leader had agreed to complete denuclearization. Most experts believed that North Korea might agree to staged levels of arms control, but that it would never give up its nuclear weapons - seen as vital to its survival - totally.

Yet even as Trump was minting a coin to celebrate the "historic" summit and beginning a campaign to get the Nobel Peace Prize, his bellicose advisers were detonating land mines.

National security adviser John Bolton, who had advocated attacking North Korea, suggested that the U.S. would follow the "Libyan model" with North Korea. Bolton argued that he meant the agreement whereby Muammar Gaddafi gave over all of his nuclear materials (Libya did not have a nuclear weapons arsenal) without any incentives. But Bolton is no one's fool. He knew that what happened next was Gaddafi faced internal upheaval, the U.S. and European allies intervened for "humanitarian reasons," bombing Libya, and Gaddafi ended up being captured and murdered.

Not surprisingly, the North Koreans were angered by the notion that this "model" would be applied to them. They cancelled a preparatory meeting in protest. Then Vice President Mike Pence announced that if the North Koreans didn't make a deal with the U.S., Kim could meet the same fate as Qaddafi. That prompted North Korean officials to call him a "political dummy."

Saying that they would not "beg the U.S. for dialogue," Choe Son Hui, the vice foreign minister, unleashed hot rhetoric of her own, asking whether the U.S. "will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown."

That rhetoric led Trump to cancel the meeting. It is hard to conclude anything but that Bolton and Pence were working to sabotage the meeting that Trump was trumpeting.