Trump seems ready to treat his upcoming North Korea talks as another game of ping pong, telling reporters on Wednesday that “if the meeting when I’m there [with Kim Jon-un] isn’t fruitful, I will respectively leave the meeting”. And presumably go back to considering “preventive strikes”, as he did two months ago.
This surprising statement about departing the talks came after he’d formally announced his meeting with the North Korea leader and revealed Mike Pompeo’s secret meeting with Kim Jon Un:
The idea of leaving the North Korea talks midway, and publicly threatening to do so ahead of them, is remarkable: The possibility of summit level talks breaking down is implicit, it’s always there – there’s no need to spell it out and that’s why, as a leader, you don’t normally come out and say it in so many words.
When Trump does this, he’s not simply disregarding conventions, he is showing a stunning lack of understanding of the intricacies of diplomacy and international relations.
And it shows the deep danger there is in summit level talks that are not well-prepared. Leaders are rarely diplomats; summit level talks need to be carefully organized by each country’s diplomats (and spies are not normally involved – though they are in the case of the US); expected results need to be “locked in” ahead of time to prevent derailment.
That is, historically, the customary procedure, but to what extent will Trump conform?
Not much, if he is already threatening to leave talks midway even before all the details have been set, like the meeting venue or the return of the three American prisoners. And it seems that Pompeo’s secret trip to North Korea didn’t resolve any of those points. So little is resolved in fact that at this point in time, a suggestion is circulating that the talks might not take place at all.
Given the high level of uncertainty, there is another possible explanation: What if Pompeo’s trip to North Korea was revealed only now (it seems it took place 2 or 3 weeks ago) in order to “push” Congress into confirming Pompeo in his appointment as Secretary of State? After all, Trump came out in support for Pompeo with a very strong tweet on 19 April:
Mike Pompeo is outstanding. First in his class at West Point. A top student at Harvard Law School. A success at whatever he has done. We need the Senate to approve Mike ASAP. He will be a great Secretary of State!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2018
Showing that Pompeo has done secret diplomatic work of the highest order, dealing with the leader of an enemy country, should count as a winning argument with those in Congress that doubt Pompeo has the diplomatic chops to do his job at State…Or is that a move too clever by half?
One thing looks pretty certain: Trump is looking forward to meeting Kim jong-un. He tweeted twice about it, notably this one:
North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress! Look forward to our Summit.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 20, 2018
Of course, the North Korea leader mothballed his test site located in remote mountains northeast of Pyongyang probably because it was already showing structural weaknesses and was no longer functional. But he did this ahead of his talks with South Korea President Moon Jae-in , scheduled for 27 April. He is putting his best foot forward, saying at a party meeting on Friday: “our republic will join global efforts to completely suspend nuclear testing.” Good countermove. And one that cost him nothing.
The ball is now in the other camp, Moon Jae-in’s and Trump’s.
(article updated 21 April)