The North Korean Card Game

The North Korean Card Game

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Everyone who has ever worked in Washington or studied governmental decision-making recognized that North Korea would push back after having suddenly had a series of new demands placed upon it by the Trump Administration. These are the Bolton conditions and terms for the forthcoming bi-lateral meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Given the history of the fits and starts in negotiations with North Korea for decades, this was not unexpected. From the moment the South Korean Ambassador in Washington presented Kim’s proposal and the President responded almost immediately, any serious talks—read negotiations—could never happen.

The dramatic nature of the offer presented to Trump by the South Koreans in early March and Trump’s acceptance, the most transparent and dangerous picture presented was that the U.S. was a decision-making process consisting of only one person. With no coordination or staffing by the NSC, State, Defense, Intelligence, etc., the President went rouge and agreed to the offer. It remained then for staff to make it happen. The President made this decision with as much consideration and advice as if he were choosing which iron club to use for his second shot on the fifth hole at Mar-a-Lago.

Admittedly, the President did recently say that if his meeting with President Kim did not develop as he wished he would walk away. It would be a meeting arranged like a bully telling his target that we will play by my rules or there is no deal. There will be no negotiation. It was the closest Trump has come to his “lets make a deal” philosophy.

Once John Bolton, another bully, became National Security Adviser, keen observers recognized the talks were doomed. What Bolton added to Trump’s bullying was that fact that he had State Department/White House experience which Bolton recognized had been totally lacking. Bolton understood that this meeting should never have been arranged without extensive prep-work having been done, internal policy coordinated, and Congress and allies consulted. He also knew that he wanted to up the ante on Kim as a matter of tactics. Bolton convinced the President that he needed to look even tougher; something that the President loved doing.

As was the case with his decision to abrogate the Iran deal, to open the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, President Trump is really most interested in overturning the policies of his predecessors or—as is the case in this instance—proving he could achieve something at which others had failed.  This is not decision-making but egotistical, political gamesmanship.

Donald Trump does not want to learn anything. He wants Washington—diplomatically as well as domestically—to operate like the New York real estate world; win on your terms and never give anything. The one exception might be if you are being blackmailed.  The President does not accept process, history, or rules. North Korea is willing to wait because today it is holding better cards than ever and many more cards than Trump. It also appears that China will give Kim political and diplomatic cover.

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