President Donald Trump is understandably taking bipartisan criticism for saying that he takes Kim Jong Un at his word that he didn’t know about the treatment by his regime of Otto Warmbier, the young American detained on an alleged theft charge during a tour in 2016 and who died shortly after being returned to the US in a vegetative state. Warmbier’s parents who had previously praised Trump issued this statement:
“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”’
I also wish Trump had not said that, but I think it would be a naïve mistake to think Trump doesn’t know how evil Kim and his regime really are. I’m certain he would have preferred not to bring up Warmbier or any other dispute over North Korean injustice when he was trying to convince Kim to give up his nuclear program. He already had Democrats back home doing everything possible to undermine him while he was on foreign soil; he didn’t need reporters pressing him to comment on that. I would imagine he said what he thought he had to say to keep the negotiations on track.
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Once again, I think this is just another example of Trump’s critics being either incapable of comprehending his negotiating style or deliberately refusing to. Unlike our previous “negotiators” who told our enemies in advance exactly what they were willing to do or not do, Trump keeps his cards close to his vest and his adversaries off balance. First, he sizes up his deal partners, identifying their weaknesses, then uses them to his advantage.
In this case, he knows that trying to get anything out of Kim by throwing his past atrocities in his face in public will kill all hope of a deal. Kim is vulnerable to flattery, has a huge ego and is desperate to be seen as a big shot outside of North Korea. For the president of the United States to agree to travel halfway around the world to be seen in public with him was indeed a big ego stroke for Kim, and one the “expert” diplomats strenuously warned against for years because it would “legitimize” Kim and “give him just what he wants.” But he doesn’t need us to “legitimize” him as North Korea’s dictator and if giving him what he wants that’s nothing but empty flattery gets us something major that we want, then why not give it a try?
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Kim craves being seen as a player on the world stage and a summit with Trump is a dream come true for him. But when he tried to push Trump too far, Trump made it clear who was really the boss by taking off and leaving him with egg on his face. The message Trump wants to send isn’t “This is over!” but “Don’t pull that again.”
To make a showbiz comparison, a mug who wanted to look like a big shot would be elated if Frank Sinatra let him hang out in his shadow. But if he ever forgot his place and made the mistake of thinking that Frank was hanging out with him, he’d be cut off faster than you could say, “Ring-a-ding-ding.” Kim got too big for his britches and Trump had to remind him who’s really the chairman of the board. But he doesn’t want Kim to lose too much face because he wants to give him the chance to come crawling back with a little dignity and pick up negotiations again, from a slightly more humble position.
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This is what I meant when I said this wouldn’t be a deal, it would be a process. Trump may yet get his North Korean nuclear deal. But if he fails, it won’t be because he thought he could persuade an egomaniac like Kim to bend after he humiliated him in public — at least, any more than was necessary to make a point.
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