Donald Trump’s surprise cancellation of a planned summit with Kim Jong Un via a plaintive letter on White House stationary Thursday (May 23) quickly became a joke in the US Senate and the subject of mocking editorial cartoons. But the move reportedly was a complete shock to Kim’s government, and may put a group of foreign reporters inside the country at risk; North Korea has a history of taking hostages.
Negotiating with North Korea’s volatile dictator, as anyone with any knowledge about the Korean peninsula could tell you, was always going to be fraught with pitfalls. Further complicating matters, advisors within the White House seemed split on how to handle Kim, and the US president insists in general on ignoring diplomatic experts.
So where was Trump taking his cues from on North Korea? Famously, a handful of opinionated television and radio personalities exercise an out-sized influence on the US president. Trump finds Fox News’ coverage of his administration so soothing that his press office makes sure that he barely watches anything else, New York magazine reported this month. Trump calls talk show host Sean Hannity as often as several times a day.
These shows urged the president to trumpet his success with North Korea diplomacy, even though the tricky details of the meeting were never worked out. Ahead of today’s debacle, a succession of opinionated Fox hosts crowed that Trump had succeeded in ‘bringing Kim to the table,’ by agreeing to a meeting, and speculated on whether the president would win a Nobel Peace Prize.
“It was Trump’s genius and crippling economic sanctions that brought this dictator to his knees,” said Fox’s Jeanine Pirro in March. North Korea is “signaling a willingness to hold talks,” said Laura Ingraham in March.“You think that would have happened without Trump’s tough talk and reiterating that all options were on the table? Never. So much for the experts,” she said. Trump is seeing “significant progress” in his diplomacy with North Korea, Sean Hannity said in April.
But years of recent, readily available history show that the Kim regime has often been eager to negotiate deals with past US administrations. The hard part has always been agreeing to and enforcing the details of any accord, as Fox’s own reporters know.
The Trump administration apparently failed to hammer out key details before any meeting date was announced, including what each side meant by denuclearization, the time frame for denuclearization, and how soon North Korea would be rewarded. Officials should have also mapped out what exactly the two leaders would discuss, and how US allies would support US positions.
Instead, Trump was reportedly planning to wing it. His top officials weren’t even on the same page earlier this month, with national security Advisor John Bolton publicly discussing different priorities than secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and mentioning a “Libya model.” (Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi was killed by his own people after a US-backed invasion.)
In recent days, Kim’s regime essentially ghosted the Trump administration by not responding to messages. After vice president Mike Pence publicly compared North Korea to Libya this week, its vice foreign minister called Pence a “dummy” and threatened to make the US taste an “appalling tragedy,” an apparent reference to a military strike.
“Trump fell into delusions of grandeur that he would be the guy” to solve North Korea, said Robert E. Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University. “The right-wing media bubble in which he operates mirrored that back to him, creating wildly unreal expectations.”