- - Thursday, May 24, 2018


Donald Trump was never going to win the Nobel Peace Prize, anyway. He demonstrated “the art of the deal” with his cancellation of the “summit” with Kim Jong-un, which North Korea had skillfully begun to portray as a triumph of its own statecraft. The president pulled the rug out from under Mr. Kim with a triumph of his own. We can all be thankful.

The president, in a letter — not a tweet, but a formal letter on White House bond — posted earlier in the day cited Kim Jong-un’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” in his most recent public remarks, and he was drawn to the common-sense conclusion that the summit in Singapore would be “inappropriate, at this time.”

Mr. Trump left the door open for reconsideration if there is good evidence that Mr. Kim wants to behave himself, but there was relief all around in Washington where there is widespread belief that Pyongyang has been playing games.

All negotiations are “games,” of course, but Mr. Kim had cleverly manipulated the American ally in Seoul, which desperately and understandably is eager to avoid a military solution on its own soil. Mr. Trump would have been in the unenviable position of going to a summit with his ally weakening the bargaining position. This increased the likelihood of enabling the North Koreans to force a bad deal.

Pyongyang, observes longtime North Korea watcher Nicholas Eberstadt, is practicing its standard “shakedown techniques.” Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he observes that these techniques have been “honed to perfection by three generations of regime negotiators.” Mr. Trump’s predecessors had persuaded Pyongyang that American presidents, like the most recent one eager to “lead from behind” with “strategic patience,” can be rolled.

The skeptical view in Washington, from the time that Mr. Kim first proposed a summit, was that whatever he might say, he would never agree to denuclearizing his military, and he would pursue his aims with vague and fluffy statements to get economic relief and reprieve from military pressure. It worked with previous presidents, so why not with this one? Mr. Trump might have made a deal with the North Koreans like the deal Barack Obama made with the mullahs in Tehran, giving up everything for something he could call a success to burnish a reputation for making peace. Nobody wants that again.

Mr. Trump is learning what presidents before him learned, that there are no good options available. He could make concessions, as his predecessors did, with neither firm nor enforceable North Korean guarantees, or piddling concessions and guarantees like those Mr. Obama “extracted” from the mullahs in Iran. Mr. Kim would have left Singapore in far better position than when he arrived, and Mr. Trump with his face covered with thousand-year-old egg.

It’s clear that Mr. Trump wanted something from the summit, too. He said the things that diplomats say in the days leading up to the cancellation, using the soft and flattering words we do not often hear from him. Even in his letter cancelling the summit he sounded conciliatory and even amiable, expressing his regrets that his friendship with the leader he had mocked as Little Rocket Man had not flowered into something substantial and lasting.

He even cancelled a long-scheduled overflight of B-52 bombers as part of a training exercise when the South Koreans fretted that the exercise could raise tensions before the summit. “It’s routine for North Korea to demand the cancellation of [U.S.-South Korea] joint military exercises,” observes National Review, “it’s not routine for the United States and South Korea to acquiesce to those demands.”

Mr. Trump can expect criticism now for saying thanks, but no thanks, to the North Koreans. These are the critics who were not impressed when the Singapore summit was announced. The New York Times frets that the cancellation is “turning North Korea’s seeming gesture of good will [in destroying a nuclear-testing site] into potential embarrassment by its longtime enemy, the United States.”

The North Koreans learned about the president’s letter cancelling the summit from reporters on the train returning them to Pyongyang from the test site at remote Punggye-ri. The reporters had learned about the cancellation on their smartphones. A correspondent from CNN read Mr. Trump’s statement to the North Korean minders. “I can tell you there was a real sense of shock,” he said. “They immediately got up and left.”

This was another episode of the familiar and frightening soap opera playing out in North Asia. Mr. Trump did the right thing. He must stick to a good decision.

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