Trump Cancels, China Wins
by Bill Emmott–LONDON – US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel his planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un represents a diplomatic coup for the North Korean leader, and an even bigger victory for China. In the space of just a few months, Kim’s image has gone from that of international pariah to that of thwarted peacemaker.
Kim could hardly have dreamed of a greater success. In the face of threatened US airstrikes and tight economic sanctions – even from its neighbor and supposed ally China – North Korea has achieved the status of a nuclear-weapons state. And now it can even claim a kind of moral high ground. Kim, after all, was the first to raise the idea of a historic bilateral summit with the United States, and he has now had his overture rejected – after first being accepted – by Trump.
To be sure, no one in East Asia harbors any illusions that Kim has changed. He is still a brutal dictator and a potential menace to regional peace. But so far all of North Korea’s neighbors – Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia – have found his diplomatic strategy to be more predictable, and even more credible, than that of the US.
Since the idea of talks was first raised, Kim’s promise to put “denuclearization” on the table always called for a pinch of salt. After so much time and effort developing a nuclear deterrent, he was never going to give it up easily. Still, proposals to de-escalate military tensions – perhaps accompanied by a peace treaty and a broader framework for managing relations in the region – represented a welcome development, especially in the eyes of the South Koreans and the Chinese.
The same could not be said of America’s apparent negotiating position. The Trump administration’s demand for the complete and verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear and missile forces was never realistic. And, making matters worse, US credibility has been thoroughly eroded by Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, and by comments from his national security adviser, John Bolton, and Vice President, Mike Pence, both likening North Korea’s situation to that of Libya under Muammar el-Qaddafi.
It should have been obvious that lumping Kim together with Qaddafi – who was overthrown and murdered by rebels in 2011 – would cause North Korea to respond with “anger and open hostility,” as Trump put it in his letter canceling the summit. That is a fair description of the Kim regime’s statements; but it doesn’t change the fact that the North Koreans now look like the victims of American intimidation.