President Trump has, for now, cancelled the highly anticipated June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The stated reason for his decision was the recent statements from a senior North Korean official in which she threatened nuclear war. According to press reports, North Korean officials had also not been responding to U.S. correspondence and stood up U.S. officials. No doubt there is more the public does not know. There are a few points worth considering.
First, U.S. officials have made it clear that the United States wants to see North Korea “make a strategic decision” to denuclearize, and North Korea has clearly not done that. This means the United States is not looking for compromise on the North Korean nuclear program, a compromise akin to the Iran deal, for example. Kim Jong Un cannot demand to have “what Iran has been allowed to have” because the United States has returned to the policy before the Obama administration when Iran was allowed to have nothing, no nuclear program, at all.
Second, despite insistence from his critics, President Trump has clearly said the summit might not happen, and as committed as he is to giving negotiations a chance, he is also perfectly willing to walk. It is a myth that he was cornered into making a deal or that he should be embarrassed by calling off the summit. It is disappointing, and his base of supporters are eager to have a Nobel Peace Prize bestowed on him. But as President Trump said, the prize is “victory for the world.”
Third, claims from his critics that President Trump or his officials are to blame for derailing the deal are completely bogus. Yes, President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and national security adviser John Bolton mentioned the “Libya model” in the context of North Korea. So what? In 2003, U.S. negotiators successfully worked with Libyan officials and came up with a plan for removing all elements of the Libyan nuclear weapons program, as well as its longer range ballistic missiles.
Nothing about the characterization by Bolton of the U.S. plan for North Korea contradicts anything President Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said regarding the U.S. objectives leading up to the North Korean rejection of those objectives and intentions. The United States requires complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization from North Korea, and there are lessons from the denuclearization of Libya for the United States to model.
Ambassador Robert Joseph, who played a leading role in removing weapons in Libya, said, “With Libya, it became apparent that Gaddafi had made the decision to abandon his nuclear program.” He continued, “With North Korea, a strategic decision to abandon its nuclear program may take a different form. But without a strategic decision, there will be little merit in the outcome, as it will only indicate a continuation of past behavior that has always ended in failure.”
But what about the recent press conference during which President Trump said the United States was not pursuing the Libya model? He was directly refuting the accusation that his plan for North Korea includes what many wrongly associate with the Libyan nuclear disarmament, and that was in 2011, when Libyans deposed Muammar Gaddafi with the help from the United States. But what happened under the Obama administration then was in response to the brutal oppression of the Libyan people and their willingness to risk their lives to depose Gaddafi.
Warnings by President Trump and Vice President Pence that the Libya model is what will happen if Kim Jong Un does not denuclearize contributed to the confusion about what Bolton was describing in the Libya model. But it is also clear, for anyone earnestly trying to understand President Trump, that his warning about what will happen if Kim Jong Un does not denuclearize is the same as his past warnings.
President Trump said the U.S. desired outcome “would be with Kim Jong Un, something where he would be there, he would be in his country, he would be running his country, his country would be very rich, his country would be very industrious.” After providing such reassurances that the United States was absolutely not seeking regime change, he warned, “The best thing he could do is to make a deal.” What ultimately happened to Gaddafi is what will take place if no deal happens.
The last point is that the critics are right about one thing. It is not true that the United States “gave up nothing” leading up to the summit. Yes, President Trump successfully secured the release of three American prisoners. Yes, he continued military exercises without much alteration. Yes, the sanctions stayed in place, and he never changed his demands.
But the administration did relieve some diplomatic pressure. There was the photo op with Kim Jong Un and Secretary Pompeo, shaking hands and smiling, no less. President Trump has said kind words directed toward the dictator. There is now the infamous creation of the summit challenge coin. The pivot of the administration from condemnation to openness and praise has been deliberate. It was regrettably overdone, but it was also the least costly of any kind of show of good faith.
Still, the administration has approached the North Korea problem basically the right way by always hedging, remaining realistic about the prospects of negotiations going south fast, keeping economic sanctions firmly in place, continuing U.S. joint military exercises with allies, seeking a diplomatic solution in good faith, and remaining willing to walk when it becomes clear the ultimate U.S. objective is out of reach.
The United States is not obligated to accept that North Korea must be permitted to have a nuclear program that holds Americans and our allies hostage to nuclear attack. But if North Korea insists that it is, and refuses to make the strategic decision that Libya made, the blame for the potentially disastrous results will rest squarely with Kim Jong Un, not President Trump, who is rightly refusing to sacrifice American security for the sake of what would be deadly compromise.