A “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown”: what Donald Trump must realise about North Korea

“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive,” Trump wrote in his letter cancelling the summit.

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President Donald Trump has cancelled his much anticipated meeting with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, citing in a letter the “tremendous anger and open hostility” expressed in a recent statement by a senior North Korean official. The landmark meeting had been set for 12 June and Trump, displaying his characteristic bombast and Germanic attitude to capitalising nouns, promised on Twitter that both leaders would “try to make it a special moment for World Peace”.

In negotiations with North Korea, Trump’s unpredictability is an asset. The North Koreans can’t be sure that Trump isn’t reckless and stupid enough to carry out a pre-emptive strike against the hermit state’s nuclear capabilities, even if this could result in millions of civilian casualties. It can’t always tell if Trump’s bluffing.

“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used,” Trump wrote in his letter to Kim.

Unsurprisingly, however, Trump’s limited foreign policy knowledge and his kindergarten-style of diplomacy (he likes to refer to Kim as “Rocket Man”, though as he made clear in a tweet he would “NEVER call him ‘short and fat’”) is also a liability.

Yesterday, a senior North Korean official Choe Son-hui called Mike Pence “stupid” after the vice-president warned that North Korea could “end up like Libya”.

There is indeed something stupid about the Trump administration’s continued mention of Libya while it attempts nuclear negotiations with North Korea and Iran. The national security adviser John Bolton has also suggested that the US could follow the “Libya model” for North Korean denuclearisation.

In 2003, the US successfully negotiated an agreement with the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi under which Libya would give up its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions. Then, in 2011, Nato bombed Libyan government targets in support of an anti-government uprising and Gaddafi was eventually dragged from a hole in the desert and beaten to death by rebel militia. In short, Libya offers an enduring reminder for unstable, autocratic regimes such as Iran and North Korea that nuclear weapons might offer the best protection against US-imposed regime change.

“I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters. Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you,” Trump writes, striking the wistful note of a jilted lover.

It’s a testament to his inexperience that the president seemed surprised when, having secured some early goodwill gestures – such as the release of three American detainees – Kim Jong-un on 15 May threatened to call off his landmark meeting with the US if it insisted on “unilateral nuclear abandonment”. He seemed so convinced by his deal-making genius that this setback was unexpected.

In her statement, Choe suggested that if the talks are cancelled, the result would be a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown”. To bring the negotiations back on track, Trump needs to abandon his belief in his own miraculous deal-making abilities and recognise that for all the heat and noise generated, successful international diplomacy requires cool-headed rationalism. But this degree of self-awareness may be beyond him.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.