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Trump must stick to his snub of Kim Jong Un

Trump must stick to his snub of Kim Jong Un
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In canceling a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month, President Donald Trump set a precedent. For once, the United States turned the tables on Pyongyang and pushed it to chase Washington.

Just hours after Trump’s announcement, Pyongyang called for reconsideration of the cancelled summit with an uncharacteristic tone of urgency. Trump must not go wobbly and consent to this fake entreaty. He must ride the momentum and maintain maximum financial pressure on the Kim regime until it is compelled to make meaningful concessions.

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After impulsively agreeing in March to Kim’s proposition for a date, Trump unwisely kept revealing his cards, compromising U.S. leverage. Moved perhaps by hubris, and even a false sense of self-grandeur, the president seemed to presume that just by meeting face-to-face with Kim he could tame the North Korean despot and, by co-starring in this gripping reality show, carry the drama of the day all the way to Oslo for a Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Hence, the sudden snub — which, for now, affords Trump the upper hand — must have caught Kim Jong Un off-guard. Trump’s letter informing Kim of the cancellation cries unconventional. It is superficially polite, but in its condescending tone, carries the air of a college rejection letter (We “greatly appreciate your time, patience and effort,” but “Sadly...”). It comes with an insult (U.S. [nuclear capabilities] are “so massive and powerful…”), while asking the addressee to try again in the future (“Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you.”), leaving the door open for better days ahead.

It certainly caught South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who met with Trump in the White House just 48 hours before, by surprise. Trump’s unorthodox snub has even spooked the globe-trotting Moon and the neighborhood-prowling Kim to come together again in the familiar border village just two days laterSeoul now is likely to engage Pyongyang more vigorously with various subsidized inter-Korean projects, while continuing to paint Kim Jong Un as a reasonable statesman with whom Washington can conduct nuclear business.

The snub resonates across the region. China may be beset by a gnawing uncertainty, as it is at once concerned at the prospect of U.S. hard line policy on bilateral trade issues and sanctions enforcement while relieved that its sway over the North remains intact. Japan is relieved that it is henceforth less likely to be marginalized as it was when Kim Jong Un was calling the shots and lining up world leaders for a series of summits.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely sees an opportunity to reassert himself again in this chess game. In July 2000, Putin made the first-ever visit to Pyongyang by a Soviet or Russian leader, shortly after the dramatic inter-Korean summit in June between Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, and the South Korean leader, which was preceded in May by Kim Jong-Il’s first visit to Beijing, six years after assuming power. Putin may pop up in Pyongyang again sooner than later.

Pyongyang’s newfound sense of urgency for a summit suggests that the tough sanctions enforcement over the past year has instilled some psychological doubt in Kim Jong Un’s mind. Whereas in the past Pyongyang has deftly played hard-to-get with each U.S. administration by dangling the possibility of denuclearization while reaping significant political and economic concessions — variously canceling scheduled meetings, walking out in the middle of negotiations and cheating on agreed terms — Washington and its risk-averse allies have steadfastly opted for de-escalation, patience and return to negotiations with each round of North Korean provocations.

Going forward, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report Trump to nominate former Monsanto exec to top Interior position White House aides hadn’t heard of Trump's new tax cut: report MORE must remember the scorecard on past negotiations. The elder Kim was able to pocket billions of dollars in aid from South Korea, the United States, Japan and China by playing this game of provocations and post-provocation peace ploys, while the younger Kim, after going on a bluster-barrage last year with unprecedented ICBM tests and a thermonuclear test, has undergone in recent weeks a dramatic image makeover.

The hitherto anti-social, belligerent North Korean leader has morphed into “global statesman.” Kim managed this metamorphosis while making only fake concessions, such as releasing three U.S. prisoners who never should have been imprisoned, decommissioning a tired nuclear testing site, and uttering he is amenable to abstaining from further nuclear and ballistic missile test activities that are prohibited under 10 United Nations Security Council resolutions.

For now, Trump has put on hold Kim’s gambit of engaging the United States in a drawn-out negotiation process that would buy him time and money with which to perfect his nuclear posture review. However, it can easily be revived. At some point, Kim Jong Un will return to his nation’s proven two-act play of provocations and faux peace offensives.

Why? Because Pyongyang deems the demonstration of itself as an indisputable ICBM-armed nuclear power to be the key to reaping continual economic concessions and expelling U.S. troops from South Korea — both necessary conditions to changing the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula.

Hence, the next big provocation could be a hydrogen bomb test in outer space, hundreds of miles above ground, the technology willing. Kim will blame Trump for it and play on his own image as a paranoid leader presiding over a poor nation. Such a move, however, could invite a military response from the United States.

But when credible signs of a pre-emptive strike become visible — for example, the evacuation of U.S. nationals from South Korea as the reinforcement of U.S. troops and military assets take place — Kim will roll out yet another sequel to his well-honed stick-and-carrot strategy.

That’s the moment when President Trump (or his successor) must muster up the strength to walk away, once again, from pre-emption and its polar opposite, summit pageantry, all the while resolutely blocking Pyongyang’s financial pipelines. Only when the Kim regime stands on the verge of bankruptcy will the North Korean nuclear saga come to an end. More sequels, summits and snubs may well take it to a historic stage — nuclear showdown.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. A former research associate of Harvard University's Korea Institute, he has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Korea policy.