SEOUL — Is President Donald Trump offering a tutorial on how to negotiate with the North Koreans — reminding them of the riches and rewards awaiting them the moment they enter his magic kingdom?
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, came up with something like that in an interview on Fox, the conservative pro-Trump cable news network. “The president is giving Kim Jong-un a master class in how to hold a door open for somebody,” he said in all seriousness, “and if the North Koreans can’t figure out how to walk through it, even the president’s fiercest critics will not be able to say it’s because he didn’t open it wide enough.”
It’s odd that Bolton neglected to talk about the shrewdness of Trump’s strategy in the immediate aftermath of the Singapore summit when the president was saying he had “solved” the North Korean problem. In the euphoria of the moment, Trump claimed that he had accomplished a mission that had eluded all his predecessors; that he trusted Kim and was sure Kim would tear down his nuclear facilities and get rid of all the nukes and missiles they’d been producing for years.
In fact, Trump’s critics, like the North Koreans, are demanding the United States drop the sanctions imposed after its nuclear and missile tests and sign a “peace declaration” bringing the Korean War to a formal close. North Korea’s propaganda machine is now deriding U.S. pleas for “complete denuclearization” as promised in the joint statement that he and Kim signed in Singapore on June 12.
It’s hard to rationalize Trump’s gullibility on North Korea as the clever manifestation of the author of the (ghost-written) “Art of the Deal,” but there are those who think he’s got a secret scheme.
Trump’s grand plan, they believe, goes something like this. Be really nice to the guy, stroke his ego with stuff about how well loved he is by his own people, then offer him the keys to the kingdom. Lead him to the inner sanctum where he can partake of all the wonders of modern civilization, keeping most of the loot for himself and his family and friends and maybe spreading a little around the impoverished masses.
That’s what Bolton was talking about when he credited Trump with, what, offering “a master class” for Kim? Actually, maybe in another world, another time, another corner of the earth, maybe Bolton has the right idea. Maybe, somewhere, Trump might find some eager students.
In Pyongyang, they’re not buying it. Bolton should know his talk about keeping the door open for Kim to walk through and get all he wants is cockamamie nonsense. Oh, Bolton tried to cover himself, saying “nobody in this administration” is “starry-eyed about the prospects of North Korea actually denuclearizing,” but all that was talk to show Trump never had any illusions and was play-acting.
That was Bolton’s way of letting people know Trump wasn’t misled so badly as he obviously was. Sure, the Trumpster knew all along you couldn’t trust the Kimster, Bolton wants us to think, but better to give Kim the impression he believed him and maybe he would act nice in the end.
But wait! Maybe Trump fooled the North Koreans. He may have gotten them to believe they could trust him to fall for their promises, to cave in to their demands. Having canceled joint military exercises with the South Koreans and talked about reducing U.S. manpower in the South, might Trump now go along with ending sanctions and signing a “peace declaration”?
The North Koreans succeeded admirably in giving an impression of cooperation by handing over 55 boxes of remains of missing troops that they’d been storing somewhere for just the moment, and they made a great show of blowing up a nuclear test site that they’d already blown up in their last blast last September.
Is Trump ready yet again to give them what they want in exchange for more “promises”? Listen to Bolton, and you might think that’s all part of the “Art of the Deal”: Come “onna” my house, and you too can share the wealth. Bolton’s theory might have been more convincing if he’d said so while Trump was telling everyone what a nice guy Kim really is beneath it all.
Credit Bolton, however, with a measure of realism. “What we really need is not more rhetoric,” he told Fox. “What we need is performance from North Korea on denuclearization.” Trouble is, it’s not happening.