Think of the past few months of President Trump’s Korea policy as a drama, unfolding in multiple acts.
Act I: Trump impulsively agrees to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Perhaps unaware that the North Koreans have sought such a summit meeting for decades, Trump boasts that he has extracted a major concession.
Act II: Trump gradually comes to appreciate that he has been duped. To prove that he’s a winner, not a fool, he begins to oversell the summit, promising that the denuclearization of North Korea is at hand.
Act III: The North Koreans issue a public statement refuting Trump’s boasts. No, they will not denuclearize. And oh, by the way, it’s Trump who must pay tribute to them, not the other way around: If he wants his summit, he should cancel joint U.S.–South Korean exercises.
We’re in Act IV right now—and Act V has yet to be written.
As of midday on May 16, the Trump administration was reacting to the embarrassment of Act III by denying that anything untoward has happened. Throughout his career, Trump has coped with failure by brazenly misrepresenting failure as success.
In 1995, for example, Trump presided over the sale of the Plaza Hotel for $75 million less than he had paid for it in 1988. His ownership stake had long since been extinguished, and by then he was little more than a front for the syndicate of creditors who actually controlled what remained of Trump’s portfolio after 1990, when he faced bankruptcy in all but name. Yet Trump insisted of the Plaza purchaser, “I put him through the wringer and made a great deal.”
We should probably expect the Plaza Hotel treatment for the coming Kim-Trump summit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has demanded “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” or CVID in the argot of the negotiators. That will not be forthcoming. But perhaps something else will: a testing pause, maybe, or some other interim measure that can somehow be upgraded into the promised “great deal.”
The administration may have little choice by now but to carry on the pretense that it is scoring a great success in its Korea negotiations, and for two reasons.
First, U.S. options in the Korean peninsula depend heavily on the cooperation of South Korea. Trump has now thoroughly frightened and alienated South Korean opinion. South Korea’s dovish president, Moon Jae In, was elected with only 41 percent of the vote. Polls now show his approval rating in the mid-70s, because of his success in drawing Trump away from “fire and fury” and toward negotiations. As Robert Kelly of Pusan National University in South Korea observes, revulsion against Trump has consolidated a dovish consensus in South Korea.
Much of the work of snookering Trump into the Kim summit has actually been done by South Koreans, not North Koreans. It was President Moon who slyly insinuated that Trump deserved a Nobel Prize for the summit—bait that Trump swallowed like a credulous guppy. In fact, it was a South Korean delegation that first put the summit idea into Trump’s head back in March. It was the South Koreans who immediately announced Trump’s impulsive “yes” answer at the very entrance to the West Wing, thus effectively locking the door behind the president before he understood the full implications of what he had done—and before he could be dissuaded by his staff and secretary of state.
The South Korean leadership is not only seeking to constrain Trump’s options—it is advertising that constraint to the world. In August 2017, Moon asserted a veto over any U.S. military operations on the peninsula. Maybe Moon can enforce that veto. Maybe not. But U.S. strategic planners have been put on notice that America’s most important ally in this theater wants no part of a Trump-led war. Under the circumstances, pretending to believe in the success of a Trump-Kim summit may become the least-bad option inside the Pentagon as well as in Seoul.
But the Trump administration may have little choice except to oversell the summit for another reason, this time of its own making: Before actually booking a Korean success, it committed itself to a second confrontation, against Iran.
Two nuclear crises in one summer is strong coffee, even for a John Bolton National Security Council. If the administration is to prosecute a vigorous policy versus Iran, it needs to de-escalate in northeast Asia. A pretend-success at the summit is—at this point—probably the only way to achieve that de-escalation.
Maybe even more important, the very unfavorable situation that administration has created for itself with regard to Iran—reverting to the pre-2015 sanctions policy, only this time without allies and without UN resolutions—strongly biases the Trump White House to delude itself about success in Korea. If the sharp international sanctions against North Korea failed to bend Kim to Trump’s will, then the outlook seems dire for the weaker unilateral sanctions Trump can impose on Iran. Only if the Korea policy can be depicted as a success does the Iran policy not look like a path to failure.
A long-ago British politician reputedly once explained the doctrine of cabinet collective government in these memorable terms: “It doesn’t matter what damn lie we tell, so long as we all tell the same damn lie.” The leaky Trump White House has seldom disciplined itself to converge upon a same damn lie. This time, though, they may really have no choice—and may have left the rest of the world with no choice except to pretend to believe them, as the only way to avert a disastrous war under a discredited president.