Donald Trump should know one thing by now. You can’t make a deal with North Korea and expect the North to keep its side of the bargain. That should be obvious from the mounting rhetoric from Pyongyang, notably the threat to resume business as usual, that is, nuclear and missile tests.
If the U.S. doesn’t come through with a “creative” new idea to resolve the impasse between the North and the United States by the end of the year, then the North promises to resume testing nuclear warheads and the missiles to send them to distant targets.
One high-ranking North Korean, Kim Yong-chol, warned the U.S. side had better not count on leader Kim Jong-un’s friendship with Trump. The North, he made clear, would not sacrifice its defenses, its nuclear program, for the sake of that special relationship. Significantly, Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Workers’ Party under Chairman Kim, was thought to have been purged, or at least made to undergo “re-education,” as a result of the failure of the summit between Kim and Trump in Hanoi at the end of February. While Kim Yong-chol is no longer the key figure in dealings with the United States, he wields tremendous influence as always.
North Korean strategy rests in part on bypassing South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, degrading him to insignificance, while appealing directly to Trump.
However, Trump may also be reduced to insignificance, brushed off as powerless or ineffectual, while Kim refuses to change his policies. That lesson has no doubt gotten through to key figures in the State Department and National Security Council while Trump persists in saying the North’s short-range missile tests are not a problem, do not violate the understanding that he reached with Kim at their first summit in June of last year.
If Trump still fantasizes about a real deal with North Korea, right now he’s terribly distracted by the prospect of impeachment by the House of representatives. His Republican Party still holds a majority in the Senate, which must approve the impeachment in order to force him out of office, but it’s not out of the question that some Republican senators will join Democrats in favor of the impeachment. In that case, Vice President Mike Pence would become president.
Trump’s troubles at home vastly reduce his authority or power to do anything about North Korea, especially since Kim has done nothing to fulfill the promises made at their Singapore summit. North Korea has not reduced its nuclear program. North Korean scientists and engineers continue to fabricate nukes and missiles. They have not tested a warhead since September 2017, and they have not fired a long-range missile since November 2017, but their recent test of powerful short-range projectiles capable of hitting bases in South Korea and Japan showed their threat is only increasing since Singapore.
It’s still possible, of course, that Trump will want to distract attention from his problems at home by seeing Kim for the fourth time, including their two summits and then their impromptu meeting in Panmunjom at the end of May. Kim must know, however, that Trump himself is so vulnerable at this stage that any deal with him might be as meaningless as the statement that they signed in Singapore promising nothing. The result would be a torrent of fresh criticism against Trump.
Thus Trump, like Moon, is reduced to the status of a secondary figure to be exploited and bullied. Kim’s best hope lies in the expectation that Trump will again make some shocking concession that will strengthen the North Korean position. He did exactly that right after the Singapore summit when he suddenly, unexpectedly, ordered a halt to U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. That decision made Kim the victor at the summit, at which he conceded nothing.
There is the danger that Trump could make a similar shock decision as a result of negotiations with South Korea over the South Korean contribution to U.S. defense costs. South Korea has paid most of the expenses for building the huge new American base at Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul. Trump, however, is foolishly asking for an outrageous increase of $6 billion a year in Seoul’s contribution to the costs of keeping U.S. troops and bases in Korea — far beyond what the South is prepared to pay.
Kim must be happy with this display of Trump’s poor judgment while waiting for Trump to turn to him for a deal that will further weaken the South and undermine the historic alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea. Just as Moon is left with very little to show for his own three summits with Kim, so Trump also is revealed to have been a weak and bumbling leader, an easy target of flattery and false promises.
The result has been to heighten the danger for both the U.S. and South Korea at a critical time when Kim is pressing his demands, renewing threats and showing no sign of any desire to reach a deal that would require him finally to give up his nukes and missiles.