Trump Offers South Korea a Backbone


Donald Trump on Thursday canceled the much-ballyhooed summit with North Korea scheduled for June 12 in Singapore. The president cited Kim Jong-un’s recent mysterious meeting with China’s Xi Jinping among the reasons for pulling out of the meeting. Whatever the White House may be insinuating, it is highly unlikely that China is the cause for the break in the summit.

It is more than likely that Trump decided to pull out of the summit following his meeting with the South Korean leadership in Washington, D.C. Fact is, America’s principal ally in these negotiations is simply far too eager for a deal. Even though the United States nixed the summit, South Korea’s leadership went forward with a meeting with North Korea’s leadership this weekend, in spite of the fact that nothing significant could be achieved at this meeting without the presence of the United States.

Don’t Blame China This Time

While the Trump Administration had an embarrassing show in its quixotic trade negotiations with China and was blindsided by the recent meeting between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping in China, it’s hard to fathom why China would intervene to scuttle the U.S.-North Korea summit. That wouldn’t serve China’s interests.

After all, China’s ultimate goal is to remove America’s military presence from the shores of Eurasia. Should a real entente between the West and North Korea be forged, it would only be a matter of time before the South Koreans requested the Americans to leave their land, as Seoul developed deeper ties to Pyongyang (and therefore Beijing). Stopping the talks and getting Kim Jong-un to reverse course would be counterproductive to the Chinese grand strategy. In brief, the Chinese desire to unite and dominate as much of Eurasia as it can in order better to compete with the United States globally, and to keep American military forces away from China.

Jockeying for Leverage (and Credit)

Behind the scenes, a tense diplomatic dance is happening between Pyongyang and Washington, D.C. that will determine who should get credit in public for the cooling tensions. Naturally, President Trump continues to claim it was his “maximum pressure” campaign on North Korea that brought Kim to the table. For his part, Kim Jong-un denies that the American efforts had any direct effect on his actions.

Instead, Kim argues that it was the efforts of South Korea’s leadership that made him open to peace negotiations. Meanwhile, South Korea continues behaving as though it must make a deal with North Korea at all costs. Kim Jong-un understands the desperation of his South Korean counterpart and relishes it (which explains why Kim prefers to deal directly and exclusively with South Korea on matters of substance). Trump probably wants a deal, but he won’t be led by the nose into one by desperate partners, only to be taken advantage of by North Korea (and China).

Trump knows that desperation in negotiations is a killer. Even if one has weakness in a contentious negotiation, one must never let the other side know about that weakness or it will cease to be a negotiation and become a discussion about the terms of surrender.

By unilaterally terminating the summit, Trump is sending a message to his far-too-eager South Korean partners that, if they don’t want to get nuked anytime this decade by North Korea, they had better learn to sing Washington’s tune. By pulling out of the deal, he is attempting to stiffen South Korea’s backbone. After all, weakness is provocative and strength deters.

NoKo No-Go?

Ultimately, the South Koreans will realize that, without the United States—without President Trump—no real deal can be brokered with North Korea.

Trump is ensuring that the United States, South Korea, and Japan get a real deal from Kim Jong-un rather than just another summit that improves Pyongyang’s position and weakens everyone else’s. By pulling out of the talks earlier this week, Trump is forcing his allies to get in line, and is increasing his leverage in the forthcoming talks—which, we can safely assume will happen at some point this year.

Unlike his predecessors, however, Trump has no interest in holding a summit for the sake of having a summit. He wants real progress. His actions this week do not show recklessness, rather they prove that Trump is deeply engaged in the peace process.

It’s a fair bet that the summit will go forward at some point this year, but expect a bumpy ride as Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump try to gain greater leverage by pressuring the spastic South Korean leadership.

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