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Trump’s Korea stumble: An impulsive decision, conflicting signals and irrational exuberance scuttle a planned summit


Open letter (J. David Ake/AP)

If accepting Kim Jong Un's invitation to join in a nuclear summit was a high-stakes gamble, President Trump's decision to pull out of that summit after Kim behaved consistent with his well-established character must be considered a serious setback.

We were no apologists for a feckless Obama foreign policy, but let's be blunt: This charade exposed Team Trump as foreign policy amateurs.

When Trump agreed to the sitdown back in March, Kim won a long-desired prize. In 2014, a top North Korean official told The New Yorker: "If President Obama doesn't talk to us, we will just wait for the next President."

Kim won again when Trump, in the process of buttering Kim up, called him "very honorable," despite his record of brutally suppressing and starving his own people.

The U.S. gave another concession when, in response to North Korean threats, the U.S. canceled a training exercise involving U.S. B-52 bombers flying alongside South Korean warplanes.

Yes, Kim released three U.S. prisoners, a meaningful gesture. He has done that before — exactly 11 times during the Obama administration.

Meantime, rather than taking a resolute stand as the inked-in meeting date of June 12 approached, Trump and his national security team sent conflicting and confused messages.

National security adviser John Bolton, a sharp-taloned hawk, said the U.S. was following the Libya model of disarmament. What that technically communicated was: North Korea would be prodded to give up its nukes first, then rewarded with admission to the world community.

What Kim understandably heard was: If and when North Korea gives up its weapons, the West would move in for the regime-change kill, as NATO did to Moammar Khaddafy in 2011.

Kim behaved like  Kim
Kim behaved like  Kim (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump, in trying to claw his way out of Bolton's gaffe, dug the hole deeper — by saying "we decimated that country," and essentially promising Kim no harm would come to him.

This, even as the White House's noble "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign continued.

Meantime, as supporters at rallies chanted "Nobel," the President crowed on Twitter that "they have agreed to denuclearization" — a plain lie, given that Kim's nuclear arsenal remains the nation's most precious treasure.

And showing an unbecoming eagerness, the White House this week issued a commemorative coin featuring the faces of both leaders and celebrating the "peace talks." They may as well have sculpted chickens before they hatched.

Trump's open letter to Kim Thursday deftly mixed graciousness with disappointment. But the President cited "the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement" — an apparent reference to Kim's vice minister's comment that Vice President Pence was "ignorant and stupid" for "unbridled and impudent" remarks comparing Libya to North Korea.

Pence had said "this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn't make a deal," a statement that Kim could be forgiven for interpreting as a threat of regime change.

Trump wanted a summit — badly. It could have been productive. But he has only his own administration to blame for setting sky-high expectations, bungling the preparations, then watching it all go off the rails.