Trump won't be Charlie Brown to Kim's Lucy with the football

Trump won't be Charlie Brown to Kim's Lucy with the football
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There’s little reason to be surprised that Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE canceled his anticipated summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

While some quarters will criticize Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE and National Security Advisor John Bolton for raising the specter of Libya and the 2011 overthrow of strongman Muammar Gaddafi, the fact is that the administration from the beginning pursued a tactic of combining “maximum pressure” and accommodation.

The White House never wavered in dangling both the stick and the carrot in front of Kim, seeing that approach as the surest way to avoid getting played by the North Koreans like previous U.S. administrations.  


It may have been more politic to tone down the hardline rhetoric in the weeks leading up to the summit, but it was Pyongyang that reverted to form by demanding that upcoming U.S.-South Korean military exercises be halted, by canceling a high-level inter-Korean summit and by threatening to cancel the meeting with Trump.


Above all, as the date neared, Pyongyang made clear that it rejected U.S. demands to fully denuclearize before any U.S. aid is given. The White House steadily hedged its estimations of the summit taking place even before the president pulled the plug after the North Korean government made insulting comments about Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceOfficers' powerful Capitol riot testimony underscores Pelosi's partisan blunder RealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Want to improve vaccine rates? Ask for this endorsement MORE.  

The real problem was the rushed nature of the summit. The lure of an unprecedented first-time meeting between the U.S. president and the North Korean dictator meant that there was a short window in which the two sides could resolve key issues before the leaders sat down together.

After nearly 70 years of hostility, negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang would have been extraordinarily difficult, in any case. At core, however, the two sides needed to agree on the fundamental question of the definition of denuclearization, let alone its timetable and the sequence of U.S. aid, before the two principals met. 

Though the events of the past several months seemed to symbolize an epochal breakthrough in U.S.-North Korean relations, the reality is that all this was potentially just the beginning of a process of true engagement.

Decades of enmity have shaped the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, and there are no wells of trust to draw on to smooth over differences.

Trump was right in postponing the summit in the face of North Korean threats and insults. By going ahead despite escalating demands from Pyongyang, not to mention personal insults, Trump would have seemed too eager for a meeting at any price, making the mistake of previous administrations, which kept negotiating even in the face of North Korean belligerence.

Instead, Trump held open the prospect of a successful meeting, while making clear that the U.S. pressure campaign remained in force. Pyongyang has become used to U.S. presidents who back down before their demands.

The cancellation not only sends a message that this president won’t play Charlie Brown to Kim’s Lucy with the football, it leaves Kim looking like the party responsible for the breakdown. 

The next steps are murky for now. Trump’s letter to Kim made clear his continuing desire to hold the meeting, but only if Kim drops the attitude. Even if Kim does so, however, the two governments remain far apart on the key issue of denuclearization and aid.

Serious talks should hammer out those details before Trump proposes another meeting, assuming that Pyongyang stops issuing threats and insults. But like should be met for like, and Washington doesn’t need to remind Kim anymore that a Gaddafi-like fate could await him if he doesn’t make a deal.  

In the meantime, though, the White House needs to guard against further North Korean provocation, including aggressive actions, which could easily come in the wake of the cancellation. That means working even more closely with South Korea, who will be pushing for the resumption of talks at the earliest moment.

It also means watching out for any deals Beijing might try to push that give more aid to Pyongyang, further emboldening Kim. Though the prospect of a different future still glimmers, Northeast Asia is largely back to where it started from with North Korea.

Michael Auslin is the Williams-Griffis fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.