Remember when North Korea was in the news? Turns out you can’t just smile for the cameras and pretend that you negotiated a peace agreement that no one has been able to accomplish in three-quarters of a century. Yesterday, Vanity Fair published an exhaustive report detailing how Trump declaring victory over a photo-op has incredibly damaged the United States’ ability to negotiate with North Korea:
The disconnect between the two parties is “existential,” according to Joel Wit, a former North Korea nuclear negotiator and senior fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center. “I think the administration made a serious mistake in not portraying a realistic view of what the Singapore Declaration meant,” he told me. The trouble began at the Trump-Kim summit, he explained, when Trump walked away misunderstanding the principle of denuclearization and what Kim was willing to give up. Now, negotiators for both sides are trying to repair a relationship that Trump aggressively oversold. “The way it happens is not [that] you get the Singapore Declaration, then it happens overnight. It doesn’t happen that way,” Wit continued. “There’s gonna have to be a process. There’s gonna have to be a negotiation. There’s gonna have to be agreements. There’s gonna have to be implementation.”
Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury, and a frequent critic of the president’s North Korea policy, expressed a similar frustration with how Trump’s impetuousness may have damaged a once-in-a-generation opportunity for peace. “I think their view is very straightforward,” he said. “North Korea was under threat from the United States until the day it tested the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States. And from their view, what happened within months of doing that? The president of the United States flew to Singapore to meet with the leader of North Korea.” When Trump misconstrued Kim’s intentions, declaring that the denuclearization process had begun, the stage was set for the sort of conflict that derailed Pompeo last week.
Now, the fallout from the failure to articulate exactly what the United States’ position is outside of “Trump is the best dealmaker ever!” is beginning to manifest amongst our allies. Per The Washington Post:
This summer, the Japanese concealed a meeting they held with North Korea from senior U.S. officials, according to people familiar with the matter. The secret meeting, which has not previously been reported, took place in July in Vietnam between a top Japanese intelligence official, Shigeru Kitamura, and a senior North Korean official in charge of reunification, Kim Song Hye. Senior U.S. officials expressed irritation that Japan wasn’t forthright about the meeting, given Washington’s near-constant updates to Tokyo on its dealings with North Korea.
A Japanese official said he could not comment on meetings with intelligence officials. But officials in Tokyo have acknowledged that to negotiate the return of Japanese abductees in North Korea, they can’t solely rely on the Trump administration to lobby on Japan’s behalf.
When you hear people say that Donald Trump is damaging longstanding U.S. relationships, these are the kinds of practical consequences of that problem. Sure, in some instances it’s a good thing for the U.S. colonialist state to lose some of its power over smaller nations, but stuff like this is incredibly dangerous. If we cannot communicate effectively with a chief ally on a topic where both of our interests should be easily aligned (not wanting to be attacked by North Korea), then what does the rest of the relationship look like?
The WaPo report notes that Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has also broken with Trump on issues of trade. We are witnessing a dramatic realignment of international interests moving away from American ones. The fact that Japan feels the need to go behind our backs to deal with North Korea is proof that we have been squeezed out of major decisions involving the security of our allies in East Asia. North Korea is more of an existential threat to the United States, while it is a literal threat to South Korea and Japan. You can see this disconnect in how serious each side is taking the peace negotiations with North Korea.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called off his trip to North Korea, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in is pushing ahead with his goal to end a war which began shortly after WWII and still has yet to be formally called off. Per the New York Times:
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea sees a more urgent need to travel to North Korea next month and meet with its leader, Kim Jong-un, now that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip there this week has been canceled, Mr. Moon’s office said on Wednesday.
North and South Korea had earlier agreed to hold a third summit meeting in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, next month. But Mr. Moon had hoped that Mr. Pompeo would first break a logjam in talks over denuclearizing the North, making it easier for him to push his agenda of increasing economic and other inter-Korean ties when he sat down with Mr. Kim.
A spokesman for South Korea said, “Now that North Korea and the United States remain deadlocked, a new South-North Korean summit meeting, if anything, will play an even bigger role in helping resolve problems and overcoming obstacles.”
Translation: we cannot trust the United States to do their part in negotiations, so we must take on a greater responsibility if we are to achieve peace.
Diplomacy is a lot of work. It requires an immense amount of patience and a deep understanding of each country’s relative interests, and one must conduct themselves with a certain amount of humility if they are to appease the fickle tastes of diplomats, so of course Donald Trump is terrible at this. He’s more qualified to play quarterback in the NFL than he is to conduct high-level negotiations amongst the most powerful people in the world. Japan and South Korea retreating from their reliance on the United States in negotiations with North Korea is simply one example out of seemingly infinite where President Trump is putting his own superfluous and propagandistic interests ahead of America’s. His complete and utter incompetence will undoubtedly create infinitely more problems for generations to come.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.