President Trump had convinced himself earlier this month that he was en route to a Nobel Peace Prize for bringing peace to the Korean peninsula. That mirage has already dissipated.
On Thursday, the president announced he was canceling his planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, blaming the North Korean leader's "tremendous anger." What Trump didn't mention was that Kim's wrath was provoked by statements from Vice President Mike Pence, from the president's national security adviser John Bolton – and from the president himself — that suggested America wanted regime change in Pyongyang.
Apparently Trump thought the way to get Kim to give up all his nukes was to threaten to destroy him. Any North Korea expert could have warned the president that was a losing strategy. Kim wants to keep his nukes precisely to prevent any threat to his regime.
But Trump is famously resistant to briefings, insisting he knows best.
What's so astonishing about this denouement is that the White House has squandered a pressure campaign that was paying some dividends. Kim was willing to talk – although unwilling to give up all his nukes since they guarantee his survival. An imperfect deal – far from the total denuclearization the president imagined – might have been (possibly still could be) achievable.
But Trump's dysfunctional White House team began mouthing off in ways guaranteed to sabotage the summit. First, Bolton demanded that Kim adopt the (totally irrelevant) Libya model, whereby, in 2004, the United States closed down Moammar Gadhafi's small nuclear program (which had produced no weapons).
Of course, the Libya model ended in 2011 with the overthrow of Gadhafi, supported by the United States. And Bolton has famously called for regime change in Pyongyang.
When North Korea denounced Bolton, Trump backpedaled, but then said Libya showed "what will take place if we don't make a deal." Mike Pence followed suit on Monday with more threats, saying relations with North Korea "will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn't make a deal." Not surprisingly, Pyongyang reacted furiously.
Now Trump has put himself in a pickle. South Korea and Beijing – both eager for talks that dissipate tension on the Korean peninsula – are likely to blame the White House if this opening closes. This may weaken sanctions pressure on Pyongyang.