The Trump administration is a cable-news presidency. President Donald Trump, known for his aversion to detailed briefings, often sets much of his agenda during his morning “executive time” sessions — that is, watching and frequently tweeting about cable shows like Fox & Friends.
But Trump isn’t the only world leader with a cable-TV package: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is apparently another consumer of American news coverage. And, as became clear this week, that should cause the Trump administration to think hard about how it publicly portrays the president’s upcoming summit with Kim.
The much-anticipated meeting, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, will likely be the most important diplomatic event of the year. But on Wednesday, North Korea suddenly undercut the hype, announcing that it would postpone talks with South Korea because of Seoul’s joint military exercises with the United States. Then it suggested it could pull out of the summit with Trump, too.
The threats weren’t entirely unexpected. As many analysts noted, North Korea often backtracks on promises as a negotiating tactic. Alison Evans tweeted “One reason #NorthKorea threatened to cancel the 12 June summit? Its leadership likely recognizes how important optics are to Donald Trump... North Korea just won lots of photos and an hour of footage from the Kim-Moon summit — Kim Jong Un doesn’t need another photo-op just yet.”
But later on Wednesday, North Korea released another statement that presented more significant objections to the Trump administration’s view of the Singapore summit. The complaints seemed to come in response to cable-news appearances by U.S. officials.
This past weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton appeared on Sunday talk shows and discussed Trump’s plans for his meeting with Kim. Pompeo reiterated to Fox News that the United States would demand “the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea,” while Bolton told CNN that North Korea is in a weak position due to Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy of economic and diplomatic isolation.
And while he didn’t mention it this Sunday, Bolton has previously touted the example of Libya’s denuclearization as potential precedent. In 2003, the then-dictatorship agreed to give up its nuclear efforts to get relief from U.S. sanctions and repair its moribund economy. “I think we’re looking at the Libya model of 2003, 2004,” he said to CBS News last month.
That’s a pretty controversial assertion in Pyongyang, given former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi died violently in 2011 at the hands of anti-Gadhafi militants and his country has been ravaged by conflict since. And North Korea has apparently been paying attention. In Pyongyang’s latest statement, nuclear negotiator and current Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan took aim at “high-ranking officials of the White House and the Department of State including Bolton” for their comments.
The “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable” fates, Gwan said, later mentioning feelings of “repugnance” for Bolton — something already well-established by North Korean state media.
Kim isn’t alone in his skepticism of the “Libya model.” Even were the plan acceptable to North Korea, American experts doubt it would be feasible given how much larger Pyongyang’s nuclear program is than Libya’s former efforts. “The Libyan program could fit in a two-car garage,” said Christopher R. Hill, a former State Department official who led talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, at an event this week. “I don’t think Libya has much to do with it.”
If the criticism of Trump’s national security adviser was designed to sow dissent in the ranks, it may work: Trump doesn’t like being undercut by his staff, and Bolton’s message is more aggressive than Trump’s recent conciliatory tone toward Kim.
“This is the President Trump model,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to CNN on Wednesday, downplaying Bolton’s comments. Ankit Panda, a senior editor at the Diplomat magazine, suggested on Twitter that North Korea may demand Bolton be kept home from the Singapore talks — something it also did in 2003.
More broadly, North Korea is letting the world know that it doesn’t view the aim of the Singapore summit as Washington does. Trump has defined the aim of the talks simply: “It means they get rid of their nukes,” he said at a news conference late last month. In reality, “denuclearization” can mean several things, including North Korea’s opinion that denuclearization means the United States should give up its own nuclear weapons in the region.
“The surest way for the summit to end in disaster is if President Trump enters with the false belief that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula means Kim Jong Un unilaterally surrendering his nuclear weapons,” said Vipin Narang, an expert on nuclear nonproliferation at MIT, to my colleague Anna Fifield last month.
If nothing else, North Korea’s threat has brought the feel-good vibe to a screeching halt. The Trump administration had taken a triumphant tone over the past few months; one unnamed European official told the Guardian that Trump officials privately suggested Kim had chosen to “surrender in front of the American power.”
Trump himself has hyped the Singapore summit as if it were a pay-per-view event. On Wednesday, however, Trump was uncharacteristically mute. “We will have to see,” he told reporters when asked whether the summit was still on.
Whether the summit goes forward, North Korea has shown how closely it is keeping tabs on America’s news cycle — and how it’s adept at influencing that news cycle as well. Kim will surely know how badly Trump, facing bleak midterm election prospects and largely devoid of foreign-policy wins, wants to make a deal. In the end, Trump may be the cable-news president, but perhaps it is his foil in Pyongyang who’s holding the remote.