President Trump’s Twitter account is once again getting him into trouble, this time on North Korea. After decrying the Obama administration’s timidity with respect to Syria’s chemical weapons, the president now faces his own red line problem. Despite Trump tweeting in January that North Korea getting a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile “won’t happen” under his presidency, it looks like Kim Jong Un is getting close.
No one thinks that Kim Jong Un—who is proving a skillful tactician—is going to unilaterally disarm because of U.S. posturing. The only question is whether the Trump administration has the diplomatic dexterity to restart negotiations. The return to talks depends not only on how the president manages North Korea, but how he manages Beijing and some serious political constraints at home. Particularly in the wake of the death of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia undergraduate who recently died in North Korean detention, will engagement with the North Koreans look like capitulation?
The administration’s learning curve has been steep. The implicit deal coming out of the Mar-a-Lago summit between Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping of China was straightforward: The administration would delay pursuit of its protectionist economic agenda vis-à-vis China in return for help on North Korea. But Pyongyang continued to develop new missile capabilities—albeit delaying a sixth nuclear test so far—while Beijing remained cautious in how far it was willing to press.