LONDON: Let’s get one thing clear: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will never give up his nuclear weapons unilaterally. Perhaps this finally got through to President Donald Trump, which is why he has pulled out of the much anticipated talks scheduled for 12 June in Singapore. Kim’s nuclear tipped missiles, which he claims can now reach the US, are his insurance policy for survival. If he needed any reminder, this was provided by Trump’s new National Security Advisor, John (Bomb Iran) Bolton, last week when he declared that the 2003 disarmament of Libya, which eventually destroyed its leader Colonel Gaddafi, should be a model for ongoing negotiations with Pyongyang. This incensed Pyongyang. “We do not hide our feelings of repugnance towards him”, said an unusually restrained spokesman from the foreign affairs ministry. He notably refrained from criticising President Trump personally.
Sensing that his much desired Nobel Peace Prize was slipping away by North Korea threatening to cancel the face to face summit, Trump quickly contradicted Bolton, saying that the Libyan model is not on the table. Such is the current chaos in the White House. “We’re gonna make a great deal,” boasted Trump, referring to his business expertise as a self-proclaimed great deal maker.
But was Donald Trump a successful deal maker? In a critical article in the Atlantic last week, David Frum, a Republican speechwriter for President George W. Bush, reminded readers that in the 1990s Trump faced bankruptcy, having made a series of disastrous deals. One example was the Plaza Hotel, which he purchased in 1988 for slightly more than $400 million, an unprecedented sum for a hotel at the time. Just seven years later it was sold with a loss of $75 million, part of a vast and humiliating restructuring of some $900 million of personal debt that Trump owed to a consortium of banks. Untroubled by reality, he regarded the purchase as a triumph. “I put him (the vendor) through the wringer and made a great deal,” insisted Trump.
Throughout much of his business career, Donald Trump made decisions based more on instinct than analysis. History is littered with examples of him paying substantially more for assets than their market value simply because he wanted to be the big player. As a result, according to his biographers Mark Fisher and Michael Kranish, in the early 1990s, Trump presided over an empire in tatters: four corporate bankruptcies, an airline repossessed by his bankers, and his 282-foot yacht sailing around the globe in search of a buyer, until a Saudi prince picked it up for one-third less than Trump had paid for it. He survived simply because he owed so much money and was too big to fail. The banks decided not to pursue protracted bankruptcy proceedings against Trump, having judged that they would get more of their money returned by allowing him to continue. Trump was saved by a combination of appearances in the reality TV series, The Apprentice, and, according to allegations in an explosive new book published last week by the award winning journalist Seth Hettena, substantial amounts of Russian dirty money being laundered through his enterprises.
Instinct is fine if you are a private businessman, but when you are President of the greatest country in the world, it can be extremely dangerous. President Trump lives in a post-truth world in which decisions are taken less on fact and evidence and more on feeling, emotion and preference. When challenged to provide the evidence for many of his decisions, he frequently resorts to saying “look, lots of people agree with me”! Many of his decisions are contrary to what his intelligence and other fact-based institutions are telling him. If he is given facts he doesn’t want to hear, he simply calls them fake. Fake is his favourite word.
So why did Kim Jong Un agree to hold talks? “Sanctions and ‘other pressures’ are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea”, tweeted Trump triumphantly back in January, claiming credit for the North’s decision to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics, which led to improved relations with South Korea. These were the days of traded insults of “little rocket man” and the childish comparison of the sizes of nuclear buttons.
Behind the scenes, however, it was South Korean President Moon Jae-in who was beginning to work the magic in a quiet and subtle way. Moon carefully trod the difficult diplomatic line between wanting dialogue with the North and not wanting to annoy the US or undermine economic sanctions. Moon, who is now devastated by Trump’s decision to withdraw, told reporters in January, “I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks”. He knew that Trump would take the bait and even added for good measure that Trump should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It worked. “Everyone thinks I deserve the Nobel Peace Prize”, Trump told reporters, adding with uncharacteristic modesty, “but I would never say it”.
There would have been considerable nervousness in the State Department had Trump met Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Would he have kept to the script, or would he have gone off-piste? An anxious Vice President Mike Pence had recalled Trump’s interview with the Washington Post in 1984 when he claimed he could handle the US side of the nuclear arms talks with the Soviets. “It would take me an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles”, he boasted, continuing with his usual modesty, “I think I know most of it anyway”. Pence noted that Bolton’s attempted interjection and reaction from North Korea had failed to stop Trump, so he had another go with the Libyan model, receiving the normal North Korean abuse, “political dummy” and “stupid”, in return. This time it worked and a braggadocio Trump saw the light.
Kim’s strings are pulled by China, which provides his regime with the resources to survive, and it is China’s objective to remove all US forces from the Western Pacific. This will be the condition for the dismantling of Kim’s nuclear facility, nothing less. With his eyes set firmly on the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, it’s just possible that Trump would have moved in that direction; by instinct of course.