Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
President Trump appears finally to be acknowledging the limitations of his anti-Kim Jong Un tirades, and as a result, seems to be edging towards a weaker nuke deal than he used to have with Iran.
The man he lambasted as “little rocket man,” whose country he threatened to “totally destroy,” is being enticed out of his ‘hermit kingdom’ for a friendly chat June 12 at their summit in Singapore, not a dressing down.
Just weeks ago, Trump was demanding Kim agree to get rid of nukes before the pair meet.
Friday, Trump told reporters, “I think it’s a ‘getting to know you’ meeting,” hardly the one-and-done summit he’d tried to persuade the world he was capable of delivering.
Trump has learned that his threats of “fire and fury,” boasts of a bigger nuclear button than the North Korean leader and sanctions like “never before” do not work on a dictator.
Trump is effectively giving Kim an easier pass on his nukes than he is giving Iran, which, by the way, doesn’t have a bomb.
Indeed, he promised to scale back his rhetoric on sanctions. “I don’t even want to use the term ‘maximum pressure’ anymore, because I don’t want to use that term because we’re getting along.”
If it sounds ironic, it is.
Only last week Trump canceled the summit because of North Korea’s “tremendous anger and open hostility.”
Go figure, right?
But that’s not all. South Korea, America’s loudest ally, is telling Trump when Kim gets what he wants he’ll do the right thing.
When asked about Kim’s short-range missiles, South Korea’s defense minister told reporters Saturday, “As North Korea comes out to the international community … there is no reason for them to continue to develop and maintain a weapon that they do not need to use.”
It begs the question: What part of Trump’s rhetoric or North Korean history gives South Korea this impression? But as Kim’s nearest neighbor, it has the most to lose.
South Korea’s defense minister sounded almost willfully optimistic, stating, “Just because we have been tricked by North Korea in the past doesn’t guarantee that we will be tricked in the future.”
This makes Trump’s weakening on North Korea all the more spectacular and hard to fathom, as it leaves him less leverage than he has over Iran.
What Iran’s mullahs couldn’t get out of Obama, the leader of the hermit kingdom is getting from Trump: acceptance on the world stage. And he is sure to milk it.
Kim’s former spy chief handed Trump an oversize letter at the Oval Office on Friday, then hung around chatting for almost two hours before getting a rare and warm personal send-off by the President.
Reminiscent of time in the Oval Office spent by one of Russia’s top US spies and spy recruiters, former Ambassador Sergei Kislyak – all smiles and happy snaps as his country had just meddled in the elections.
It also brings to mind the two-hour over-run gathering Trump had with Putin at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, closely followed by an hour-long conversation with the Russian leader later at a dinner.
When it comes to bonhomie and glad-handing, Trump is overexposed to his adversaries.
And while in the case of Kim, talking might seem admirable – because it avoids what at the beginning of the year looked like impending war – it’s worth remembering who amped us to an inch of a nuclear Armageddon. Yes, the very same President Trump.
Regardless, Trump is now heading towards a deal with Kim that will at very best be less stringent nuclear deal than Obama’s with Iran, which Trump tore up last month as too weak.
It calls into question so much.
Trump’s judgment has already been shown to be abundantly flawed, but others around him may be blind on Kim in a way they aren’t with Iran.
Both Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, and his secretary of defense, James Mattis, are former Marines who will likely never forgive the infant Iranian theocracy for backing the group responsible for the killing of 220 US Marines and 21 service personnel in the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983.
It was the deadliest day for US Marines since the battle over Iwo Jima in World War II – and Iran was behind it.
What is clear is that Trump’s pressure to get the June 12 meeting on track at almost any cost is driving his administration along.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Thursday, “Our mission is incredibly clear. It is to continue to push forward – the President has directed me to push forward to test the proposition that we can achieve that outcome.”
It took Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, several years to test a very similar proposition with Iran, and eventually accountable and verifiable denuclearization commitments were made.
And Kim, I’ll say it again, has a bomb. Iran doesn’t.
Trump thrives on inconsistency, a capricious unpredictability typical of a yard bully, which he threatens to employ against Kim. “We had hundreds of new sanctions ready to go on,” he told reporters Friday, adding, “Why would I do that when we’re talking so nicely?”
Kim, by comparison, is consummate in his consistency. So far it’s his demands, not Trump’s, that are getting heard. Iran, of course, is watching, taking notes.