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The Coming Non-Summit Between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un

The summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un was canceled. This should come as no surprise, especially in light of the fact that Trump pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPA) and how little his administration has invested in diplomacy. How are these events connected?

What lessons did North Korea learn from Iran?

First, it is that the US under Donald Trump might not be trustworthy. By that, international agreements work because nation-states can trust one another to keep their word. No trust, no agreements, unless of course there is verification. This was in place with Iran where there was to be inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities. Trust plus verification worked, but the deal still rested upon Iran and the US keeping their word and willing to honor an international agreed upon agreement. If Trump and Kim were to meet there is no assurance on the part of North Korea that any deal struck would be honored by the Trump administration. North Korea might think that were it to disarm or denuclearize that the US might not honor any agreements, leaving the country far more vulnerable than it is now.

Second, the message from Iran is that being nuclear armed matters. North Korea has the bomb (or several dozen by some estimates) and that is why it is able to go to the negotiating table with the US and South Korea. It is bargaining from a position of strength. That is also why the US wants to negotiate–North Korea has the bomb. North Korea learned from Iran that without nuclear capabilities it is vulnerable. After cancelling the JCPA, Trump administration officials such as Pompeo and Bolton have talked of a military solution. So long as North Korea has the bomb few are willing to risk military action. North Korea knows this.

This is why Kim had less incentive to show up and talk to Trump. Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPA does the opposite of what it intended. If the goal is to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the message now is get them to enhance bargaining power, especially against the United States.

Third, Trump agreed to this “summit” almost on a whim. The one rule of diplomacy is that you never agree to a summit unless you know exactly what is going to happen beforehand. Summits are the product of diplomacy–even Nixon’s famous visit to China was scripted beforehand. There was no diplomacy in place for a Trump-Kim summit. Trump’s goals in the summit was first ego (win a Noble Prize). Second, denuclearize. Third, who knows. North Korea’s goals were unclear, but disarmament is not one of them. What could have happened was entirely unpredictable, creating the possibility for a major disaster. The Trump administration cannot afford such an embarrassment after touting the summit as a big deal. Better to call it off than for it to be terrible.

Finally, for the Kim-Trump summit to be successful it required linkages to South Korea, China, and Japan. Given how little the Trump administration has so far invested in multilateral diplomacy, again it is not a surprise that the infrastructure and support needed for this summit to be successful was missing.