As Kim Jong Un began his first state visit to a country other than China yesterday, the collapse of the Hanoi Summit must have weighed heavily on his mind. Though neither side had taken any concrete steps toward the substantive issues of denuclearization, sanctions relief, or ending the Korean War, expectations for the second Trump-Kim summit were guardedly positive. Even if the bizarre Trump-Kim platitudes were just marketing noise as some feared, perhaps the two leaders could move the process forward enough to give working level staff what they needed to hammer out the details…or so the wishful thinking went. In international affairs however, a relationship without a solid preparatory foundation is a volatile one indeed. With lunch on the table and the international press standing by for a joint declaration, Kim Jong Un must have realized he had pushed his position just a bit too far.
Flattery Will Get You Somewhere
There is a perception in some capitals that the President of the United States is vulnerable to flattery. Though hard to imagine, there is some justification for the idea. World leaders that swallowed their pride and applied this tool found an accommodating ear in the White House. Shinzo Abe of Japan, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and indeed Kim Jong Un of North Korea were early adopters of this approach and benefitted tremendously from the results. More recently, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also went on a charm offensive. Recognizing the catastrophic consequences of being on the wrong side of Trump’s vanity and hoping to deflect his attacks on the Alliance, Mr. Stoltenberg gave President Trump credit for what was actually a long planned increase in national contributions to NATO common funding. By contrast, the leaders of America’s traditional allies in Europe, Australia, and Canada insisted on equality and found themselves on the receiving end of the President’s apathy and even insults. Flattery it seems, might just get you somewhere.
None of this is lost on the Chinese. Cynical in their outlook and culturally attuned to seek opportunity in every situation, China’s leaders surely arrived at this conclusion long before Mr. Stoltenberg and they would have advised Mr. Kim to push his advantage. Their active intelligence support to Kim Jong Un reflects the reality that a secure and economically viable North Korea is very much in Beijing’s interest. They are not alone. A stable North Korea contributes to the security of the entire region and Japan, Russia, and especially South Korea will also be interested in helping Kim Jong Un make good decisions vis-à-vis Mr. Trump. Unfortunately for peace on the Peninsula, Beijing and Pyongyang overestimated their ability to extract concessions from the United States in Hanoi.
The effects of Trump’s uncoordinated and impulsive decision making will have far reaching impacts. Determined to appear strong, it is unlikely Kim Jong Un will sheepishly accept Trump’s bombastic rejection. Armed with nuclear weapons, Kim has a real ability to threaten vital US interests in the region. Perhaps more importantly, by resuming missile and nuclear testing that Trump unwisely claimed credit for stopping, the North Korean leader also has the means to directly threaten the President’s credibility. South Korea’s President Moon Jae In, who brokered this process at the Pyeongchang Olympics a year ago, is also at risk. His party will suffer catastrophically in the polls if diplomacy falls apart now. In the event of renewed nuclear or missile testing, Moon is likely to be replaced by a leader that is neither interested in nor positioned to continue the peace process as it currently exists. Japan’s cautious steps toward talks with North Korea will cease entirely while China will gain influence over inter-Korean dialogue at the expense of the United States.
Mr. Trump for his part seems not to understand there is great risk in trying to manage international relations like a business. Whereas one can walk away safely from a real estate deal, he cannot simply end our troubles with North Korea despite his belief he’s called Kim Jong Un’s bluff. Trump should have taken this lesson from his failure to reenter the Trans-Pacific Partnership after walking away from it in 2017. Then, like now, his refusal to find some middle ground or at a minimum, preserve the possibility of future progress, actually did nothing but cede power to the whims of others. In this case, Kim Jong Un’s wounded and possibly nuclear fueled response.
So as Chairman Kim spends the next day and a half honeymooning with the Vietnamese Communist Party, he must surely be pondering his next move. Let’s hope he exercises a bit of restraint after being left at the altar.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.