(This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on 2 July 2018)
Do they give out Nobel Peace Prizes for praising and appeasing brutal dictators who threaten nuclear war — without getting anything in return?
President Trump claimed he would use his world-class dealmaking skills to convince North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, to surrender his nuclear weapons. Instead, Trump got played. Kim, who pledged in wishy-washy language to “denuclearize,” is now accelerating his nuclear program. The nuclear threat from North Korea — and the risk of a preemptive war launched by Trump — are both growing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading to North Korea this week hoping to contain the fallout.
Twenty days ago, Trump shook hands with Kim in Singapore. At the summit, Trump played the role of apologist in chief for Kim’s human rights abuses while praising Kim as a “very talented” person because he can “run it tough.” In North Korea, “running it tough” means executing dissidents, torturing political prisoners in gulags and threatening to wipe a few U.S. cities off the map with a nuclear blast.
The White House and Trump’s surrogates insisted that the unsavory handshake would be vindicated. They claimed we were witnessing a history-making deal from a history-making dealmaker. Former presidents, guided by experts who understood every intricacy of North Korean politics, had failed. All it would take from Trump, they claimed, was a one-on-one handshake, a photo-op and some touting of North Korea’s prospects for developing beachfront resorts. Hit by that sophisticated diplomatic approach, Kim would trade missiles for condos. Then, the president’s cheerleaders argued, Trump could accept his well-deserved invitation to Oslo.
It was risible then. Now it is being revealed as fatally naive.
Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that North Korea is rapidly completing a major expansion of a key manufacturing facility for missiles — missiles that can strike American allies, American military bases in those allied countries and, yes, the mainland United States.
North Korea watchers also used recent satellite images to conclude that “improvements to the infrastructure at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center are continuing at a rapid pace.”
NBC News and The Post also reported this weekend that “U.S. intelligence agencies believe that North Korea has increased its production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months.”
To anyone with even a basic understanding of North Korea, this comes as no surprise. “The [North Koreans’] insistence on vague language in the Singapore declaration was almost certainly so that they could continue accelerated development of nuclear facilities,” Robert E. Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University, told me on Monday. “It is a mark of how poorly President Trump prepared for Singapore that he did not anticipate this and demand sharper language and a timeline in exchange for the valuable concession of a presidential summit.”
It is becoming alarmingly clear that Trump’s “win” was a major loss for international security. But it is also a major loss for those who believe in using diplomacy rather than war to neutralize the North Korean nuclear threat.
Perhaps that’s by design. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, has long argued (before his current stint in the White House) that the United States should preemptively attack North Korea. In February, he wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed, providing the legal justification for preemptive strikes to topple Kim’s regime and take out their nuclear program — a strategy that most analysts agree could lead to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths.
In March, Bolton argued on Fox News that a Trump-Kim summit would be a positive development because it would “foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste on negotiations.” In Bolton’s view, meeting with Kim would expose the North Korean regime as untrustworthy scoundrels who could not be swayed by diplomatic olive branches. Once president-to-chairman diplomacy inevitably failed, it would pave the way for Bolton’s favored choice: deadly force.
Trump hired Bolton as his new national security adviser exactly one month after that interview.
Bolton may soon be proved right that the time on negotiations was “wasted” — not because diplomacy is doomed to fail, but because the amateur and childishly naive approach that Trump took was always doomed to fail.
As Kim marches closer to his dynasty’s long-standing dream of having an arsenal of nuclear weapons that can reliably hit U.S. cities within an hour, Trump looks like a gullible fool. And while he decides how to respond to being duped, Trump will have a mustachioed warmonger whispering in his ear, a man who has already told the world that he wants diplomacy to fail because it will lead to war.
There is still the possibility that real progress can be made if Trump stays out of the spotlight and lets the real diplomatic work get done behind the scenes. But if you believe Trump’s tweet that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” or that there is “no longer” the risk of war with North Korea, then you, I’m sorry to say, are also a gullible fool.