Is Trump Getting Cold Feet About His North Korea Summit?

The president's "historic" meeting with Kim Jong-un might not go as smoothly as planned

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Update: The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Trump has said the summit with Kim Jong-un "may not work out for June 12th," suggesting a potential delay. "If it doesn’t happen, maybe it will happen later," the president added.

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Ever since the announcement of a sit-down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, President Trump and his allies have been eager to tout the meeting as an unprecedented diplomatic win. Earlier this month, Trump announced the June 12th summit on Twitter as if it were a pay-per-view boxing match. Republicans in Congress and a group of GOP governors have called for the president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. On Monday, the White House even released a military coin celebrating the historic showdown.

The problem with all of the bluster from Team Trump is that the meeting hasn't even happened yet, and some officials are now worried it never will. Last Tuesday, North Korea reversed what had largely been a conciliatory tone by releasing a statement expressing "a feeling of repugnance" toward National Security Adviser John Bolton while claiming they will not agree to denuclearize in exchange for sanctions relief. On Sunday, the New York Times published a report about how Trump is "increasingly concerned" that the summit will be a "political embarrassment," noting that he has been discussing whether it even makes sense to go through with the highly anticipated trip.

A day later, CNN published a report detailing similar skepticism within the administration, noting that "some of the president's advisers privately say the chances of the talks occurring grew slimmer" after North Korea changed course last week. As the Times reported, the release "surprised and angered" Trump, who had been under the impression North Korea was willing to denuclearize. According to the Washington Post, Trump called South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday night to express concern and confusion over whether North Korea is really willing to denuclearize, which at this point is anybody's guess. In March, a South Korean representative told reporters in Washington that North Korea is "committed to denuclearization." On Sunday, a senior U.S. official told the Post that "it doesn’t look like they want to denuclearize at all."

Trump will meet with Moon on Tuesday in Washington to discuss the summit, which at this point is still expected to proceed as scheduled. The meeting's fate could depend on how effectively Moon is able to calm Trump's nerves. "This time last week, Moon was coming here with the intention of trying to heavily script what Trump would do in his meeting with Kim," George W. Bush North Korea adviser Victor Cha told the Post. "Now, he’s coming here just to try to save the summit. The mission has really changed."

If Trump does make his way to Singapore on June 12th, he may be doing so in a position of weakness. Because he has placed so much political stock in coming home with a peace deal, many are worried Kim could, as the Times writes, "offer assurances that will fade over time," and that Trump may be willing to concede too much in order to secure an agreement, perhaps at the expense of America's allies. "I do sense there is some concern about that," Victor Cha recently told the New Yorker's Evan Osnos. "When I was in government, the one cardinal rule we always told ourselves was that we can’t let our North Korea policy dictate our broader policy in Asia, particularly with our allies. Our policy with our allies has to dictate our North Korea policy."

It's an appropriate concern, considering a theme of Trump's presidency has been a complete and utter disregard for the welfare of America's allies. Most recently, he removed the United States from the Iran deal despite the fierce opposition of European allies. Trump decried the agreement that prevented Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal as "the worst deal ever," meaning he will be under added pressure to come back from Singapore with a deal that is more favorable to the United States than the Iran deal he just tore up. This would mean convincing North Korea to permanently discontinue its nuclear and ballistic missile programs while also presumably allowing an inspection team to monitor compliance. Judging by the harshly worded memo released last Tuesday, this would seem far-fetched, to say the least.

Though concern is mounting within the administration, Vice President Pence doesn’t seem worried. He recently appeared on Fox News to warn the North Korean dictator not to take Trump lightly. "It would be a great mistake for Kim Jong-un to think he could play Donald Trump."

But by most accounts – including from Marco Rubio and the Wall Street Journal – Trump just got thoroughly played by China during the administration’s recent trade negotiations. Chinese President Xi has met with Kim Jong-un twice in the last two months, including shortly before North Korea's pivot last week. It's not unreasonable to think that the two nations could be conspiring to wring all they can get from an American president who will head into the June 12th summit with a limited understanding of North Korea's nuclear program – the Times reported that Trump has "resisted" briefings – and a growing desperation to bring back a peace deal that can be spun as a win for America. Thankfully for the United States, Trump should have plenty of his legendary negotiating prowess stored up for the summit with Kim. He hasn't used it for much else since taking office.