With Pyongyang demanding that Washington reverse its policy toward North Korea before any resumption of nuclear talks, President Donald Trump needs to maintain a hardline U.S. posture toward the North’s growing nuclear weapons program and resist temptations to offer more unilateral concessions.
Kim Jong Un’s disparaging response of recent days to Trump’s call for a third summit comes at a critical moment, for the North Korean dictator is likely sensing U.S. weakness in light of recent administration actions.
Indeed, across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Trump has of late offered a number of unilateral sweeteners to autocratic regimes in hopes of crafting some sort of diplomatic agreement with these countries.
To secure a trade deal with China, Trump has threatened more tariffs but also refrained from criticizing Beijing’s response to the Hong Kong protests — a posture on which Beijing has capitalized as trade talks continue.
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a White House meeting with Trump even after ignoring warnings about attacking the U.S.-backed Kurds and inking a military equipment deal with Moscow.
Iran, for its part, rejected Trump’s offer of direct talks at September’s United Nations meeting and — even in the face of his maximum pressure campaign — has opted to ramp up its uranium enrichment activities.
Kim, however, doesn’t need to survey the global scene for signals about Trump’s deal-making propensities, for the president has deployed the same kinds of tactics in search of a nuclear deal with Pyongyang. In fact, the president’s latest moves on the Korean peninsula will likely embolden Kim even more.
On the very day that Kim dashed Trump’s hopes for a third summit, Washington ended talks with Seoul over its refusal to accept Trump’s demand for a five-fold increase in South Korea’s payment to cover the costs of stationing 28,500 U.S. troops in the South. While Seoul agreed to pay $890 million this year, or just over 40 percent of day-to-day costs, Trump is now demanding as much as $5 billion.
These demands — coming on the heels of Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and leave the Kurds, America’s close allies in fighting the Islamic State, largely defenseless — are renewing fears in Seoul that the president will follow through on his repeated threats to bring America’s troops home from the Korean peninsula.
But where Seoul fears vulnerability, Pyongyang may see opportunity. Since Trump clearly wants to bring U.S. troops home, Kim may conclude that he can hang tough, demand up-front concessions, and secure a nuclear deal that scales back American sanctions but doesn’t really force the North to abandon its nuclear program — and perhaps even secure the added benefit of a U.S. troop withdrawal, something that would greatly enhance his regional flexibility.
Nor is Kim likely missing the rich irony that, two days before Washington and Seoul ended their funding talks in rancor, they came together in what they called “an act of good will” toward the North: to postpone their joint military drill in order to coax Pyongyang back to negotiations over its nuclear program.
Nor is the North Korean leader likely mistaken in believing that Washington and Seoul will continue to offer sweeteners as he repeatedly flouts UN Security Council resolutions with ongoing ballistic missile tests.
In early October, the North announced that it had successfully test-fired a new type of ballistic missile that could be launched from a submarine, which experts later concluded was a medium-range missile that could travel about 1,200 miles. That test came just days before Washington and Pyongyang resumed negotiations in Stockholm, which lasted just a few hours and marked the last time the two sides have met.
Washington’s effort of recent months to ignore Pyongyang’s provocations and entice it back to the negotiating table with preemptive sweeteners is a far cry from the earlier period of Trumpian warnings about “fire and fury” and his disparaging of the young dictator as “little rocket man.” Having weathered those U.S. threats of yesteryear, Kim now seems to think that he’s got the upper hand with Trump — based on the rhetoric emanating from Pyongyang. “We have nothing pressing,” the North said in rejecting more summitry, “and have no intention to sit on the table with the tricky U.S.”
What hasn’t changed is the North’s threat to U.S. national security — or the doubtfulness that it would ever abandon its nuclear program, which provides the protection it seeks and the global legitimacy it craves.
That’s why Trump must maintain U.S. sanctions and, despite the current funding dispute, reassure Seoul that he recognizes the danger from the North and won’t leave it vulnerable by reducing the U.S. presence on the Peninsula.
Lawrence J. Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.