How Successful Is Trump’s Strategy of Unpredictability?

America and North Korea are under time pressure to prepare for a historic summit. Donald Trump lauds his continually shifting course as a masterstroke, but many fear his desire for big gestures.

Kim Yong Chol is the highest ranking North Korean official to have stepped onto American soil since 2000. On Wednesday evening he met U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for dinner at a hotel in New York. The 72-year-old former secret service head, who has worked under three North Korean leaders, had already received Pompeo in Pyongyang.

The Americans want to stick to June 12 as the date for the planned summit in Singapore between Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, said Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday. While Yong Chol is in New York, delegates from both states will also meet in the Korean Peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone, according to Sanders. Trump tweeted that a “great team” had been put together for the summit preparations. In reference to Yong Chol’s trip, he said, “Solid response to my letter, thank you!”

Many observers are still skeptical; others see the results of Trump’s ever-changing course as a success. The American president first cancelled the summit in a scathing letter, only to then praise the friendly wait-and-see response from the North Koreans and gave the green light for further preparations to be able to hold the meeting as planned.

Strategic or Impulsive

Whether Trump’s actions were impulse-driven or strategically planned over a long period, he now has the upper hand, writes the Washington Post: “President Trump has more options than Kim Jong Un. The president could go to the Singapore summit and try to reach an agreement; he could say the North Koreans and South Koreans should keep at it while the United States takes a step back; or he could say ‘this isn’t ready.’” No matter how bizarre the volte-faces of the past few days may seem, according to the newspaper, Trump may be facing a diplomatic breakthrough.

Meanwhile, the magazine Foreign Policy criticized the president for an approach to foreign policy resembling that of Kaiser Wilhelm, being completely ego-driven and destroying confidence in America with moves such as last week’s angry letter calling off the summit.

Yet from the Americans’ point of view, there is actually a negotiating advantage. After all, the demand for complete nuclear disarmament has not been abandoned and the North Koreans have nevertheless been brought to the negotiating table. And Kim Jong Un made a concession in releasing prisoners without requesting anything in return. Or at the very least this was not made public. “We’re controlling the pace,” said an American diplomat involved with the negotiations.

Trump Is Looking for Grand Gestures

In the Washington Post, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin was less optimistic: “If the only acceptable outcome is Pyongyang’s immediate denuclearization, any summit will end in failure.” The president must listen to these skeptical voices, from intelligence veterans, for instance. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned against making absolute demands. You must first create a framework for communication and diplomatic relations and then proceed slowly. The greatest obstacle to such an approach is Trump himself, says Rubin. “He longs for grand gestures.”

Recent intelligence reports also show that North Korea has no interest in completely abandoning its nuclear ambitions. Even many Republicans are skeptical. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for instance, said last Sunday that he did not believe North Korea was ready to disarm. Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution said, “At this late date, there has been no suggestion that Washington and Pyongyang have achieved a compatible definition of denuclearization.”

According to The Daily Beast magazine, there are also doubts about the destruction of the nuclear facility that North Korea recently carried out in front of journalists. The Middlebury Institute for International Studies received satellite images indicating that the plant had been cleaned and materials removed by truck.

Trump Praises His Own Strategy

Meanwhile, Trump continues to spread optimism for the summit. It is important to him that he has acted successfully and in line with his zigzagging course – after all, the meeting can now take place. The admonitory tones of his National Security Advisor John Bolton, who in recent years has also publicly contemplated preventive strikes against North Korea, are also part of a well-calculated strategy, according to the president — the “Great John Bolton,” as he called him at an event in Nashville on Tuesday. The North Koreans would of course react to Bolton’s harsh tone; Trump, in contrast, would seem better: “They think he is so nasty and so tough that I have to hold him back.”

Trump’s supporters really stuck their neck out at the first announcement of the summit and had already declared the American president a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, Trump must now put a damper on expectations in the knowledge that any negotiations on total nuclear disarmament could be lengthy and difficult. The process itself could take up to 15 years, experts at Stanford University in California estimate.

Experts on North Korea highlight that Kim Jong Un wants to modernize his country; if the Americans could convince him that he could achieve this with their help, then nuclear disarmament would be a realistic consideration. Trump tweeted over the weekend that he saw great economic potential in the country; and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month, “We can create conditions for real economic prosperity for the North Korean people that will rival that of the South. It won’t be U.S. taxpayers. It will be American know-how, knowledge, entrepreneurs and risk-takers working alongside the North Korean people to create a robust economy for their people.”

Others warn that too much talk about American aid could upset Kim Jong Un. First and foremost, he wants economic relations with China and South Korea, without the burden of American sanctions. “The last thing Kim wants is to give up his nuclear weapons only to have his country overrun by American businessmen and entrepreneurs,” wrote Eric Talmadge, head of the Associated Press office in Pyongyang.

For the time being, however, the Americans are not talking about relaxing sanctions – the trust for that is not yet there. However, they did accommodate North Korea a little. Because of the upcoming summit, the announcement of a planned new sanctions package has been postponed for the time being.

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