Many Americans went to bed Wednesday expecting an overnight nuclear deal between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. They woke up instead to news that the summit in Vietnam had abruptly fallen apart.
Perhaps Kim, sensing weakness in his American counterpart, overreached.
Here was an embattled U.S. president eager for a diplomatic victory to deflect attention from embarrassing headlines back home — a self-styled master deal-maker, looking to demonstrate he alone could solve intractable problems that had bedeviled predecessors.
Kim offered to dismantle one large nuclear processing site in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions, leaving his arsenal of 30 to 60 nuclear bombs intact.
Correctly, Trump said no and walked away from the Hanoi summit. “We actually had papers ready to be signed, but it just wasn’t appropriate,” he told reporters. “I’d much rather do it right than do it fast.”
OPPOSING VIEW: President’s diplomatic approach to North Korea is artful
Doing it right is certainly better than doing it fast. And no deal is certainly better than a bad deal.
But Kim did not come away from Hanoi empty-handed. Every time he meets with Trump, it raises the despot’s stature on the world stage and lends legitimacy to his cruel leadership.
The imagery is bracing. On Wednesday, the American president told the world it was an “honor” to stand next to Kim — whose murderous regime operates gulags filled with tens of thousands of people.
By Thursday, Trump was all but giving Kim a pass for the brutal death in 2017 of American college student Otto Warmbier: “He tells me he didn’t know about it, and I take him at his word.”
To be sure, the world is a safer place when there’s dialogue between the United States and North Korea rather than threats of war. There’s nothing wrong with Trump developing a rapport with Kim during talks, if only he didn’t keep smiling and praising the dictator in public. And there’s nothing wrong with summitry — but only as a reward after midlevel negotiators have set the table, established common definitions of the sticking points, and worked out most of the details to be ratified.
In the wake of the diplomatic failure in Vietnam, where the farewell lunch was never served, there is still a deal to be had with North Korea.
It would involve sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable steps toward denuclearization. In fact, it would look a lot like the Iran nuclear deal, the one Trump walked away from.
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