Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article are those of the author.
Kim Jong Un’s stealth has stolen a march on the world.
His goal of being a global nuclear threat appears all but realized. Certainly, that is the view of the man whose mission would have been corralling Kim’s nihilistic capabilities to conventional weapons, had he been given the chance.
Sadly for Yukiya Amano – the director general of the IAEA, whom I interviewed this week – the diplomacy required to get his inspectors access to North Korea’s nefarious nuclear sites has been in short supply.
Sadly perhaps for the rest of us, that shortage of diplomacy when it comes to dealing with North Korea isn’t about to change. Worse, it might be driven into the dirt.
IAEA inspectors have had their best – albeit at times troubled – access to North Korea when the world’s global powers have been somewhat aligned.
The six parties that were once involved in talks – comprising the US, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and of course North Korea – had a brief coming together of interests from early 2007 to late 2008, until Kim Jong Il, father of the current North Korea leader, balked and kicked the IAEA monitors out of the country.
Today, Russia and China are teaming up against the US over North Korea, joining diplomatic forces and demanding a “freeze for freeze” on the Korean peninsula. This plan would have the US and South Korea halt their military exercises in exchange for Kim cutting his nuclear tests.
President Trump’s ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has declared this plan a non-starter, saying while Kim threatens the US, now is not the time to skimp on training with allies.
But the gulf between the US and both Russia and China has not been as vast as it is today in recent years.
Since coming to power, President Trump has vacillated between open arms and outright hostility to both nations. Now, neither country – both of which wield power to veto UN Security Council resolutions, don’t forget – knows what to expect from Washington, so it makes sense that they would plan for the worst.
Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, is being particularly bellicose, characterizing the North Korea situation as another Iraq scenario, and implying that the US is a bully on the verge of a vain and disastrous invasion.
China fears Trump’s warnings of a trade war. These fears could be amped up by his recent threats to cut trade with any country doing business with North Korea.
Nothing coming out of DC at the moment gives either China or Russia any confidence of diplomacy that could survive the first engagement inside the Oval Office.
And just as China has its own agenda, so does Putin.
He wants center stage on all global issues these days: Russia is still smarting from the western sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea and its actions in Syria.
His eastern economic gathering in Vladivostock, with its sudden focus on the regional players in the North Korea crisis, automatically makes Putin a key power broker.
He openly called Haley’s demand for a last gasp of diplomacy and more UN sanctions on North Korea “useless.”
Of course, for this situation, Trump has only himself to blame. Even his allies are becoming wary of him.
This past weekend, tweeting that South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in had been “appeasing” Kim. A few weeks ago he threatened “fire and fury” on North Korea, then a few days later said even that wasn’t enough.
While Haley told the UN Security Council that Kim was “begging for a war,” Britain’s ambassador, an ally of Haley, struck a more subdued tone, reminding the gathered diplomats that “sanctions are working.”
Other US allies have been keeping a little distance too.
Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron together issued joint statements about North Korea’s massive nuclear bomb test, emphasizing not just UN sanctions, but separate European sanctions also.
While Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin play the long game, Trump’s Twitter followers feed his impulsive nature. They are doing little to further his or America’s interests.
He is paying the bill for irascibility and both Russia and China will milk it for all its worth to them and their national interests.
Both countries fear an outcome that increases US influence in the region. Now is the ideal time to grind every grand and petty grievance they have against Trump.
Such animus makes the US President’s hand at UN diplomacy weaker than any of his predecessors had over North Korea. Not just because Kim is so much closer to having the nuclear weapons he threatens, but because Trump’s inclination to play every issue for the moment with little eye for the future is backfiring.
Since coming to power seven months ago he has antagonized his adversaries and distanced his friends.
Even so, Amano at the IAEA lives in hope of diplomacy.
While Kim sprints to ready his deadly nuclear weapons arsenal, Amano is ratcheting up the IAEA’s readiness, should sanctions bring Kim to talks and let him get his inspectors back inside the hermit kingdom.
Amano can’t say if North Korea’s hydrogen bomb threat is already a reality, or what his inspectors can do if it is. But his rare conversation with this journalist and full-throated warning that Kim is now a global threat speak volumes to the dangers of Trump’s diplomatic failings.