The US president boasts of a possible peace deal with North Korea, but the prospects of success at next month’s planned summit in Singapore look worse than ever
It is not clear whether Donald Trump set out to threaten Kim Jong-un with Muammar Gaddafi’s fate. It is not even certain that he realises he did so. In his rambling remarks on Thursday he appeared to confuse Libya and Syria. He took his national security adviser John Bolton’s remarks on the “Libya model” to refer to the military intervention of 2011, rather than the negotiated removal of its nuclear programme in 2003. It is even possible that he intended to reassure: “That model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong-un is going to be very, very happy,” he said.
So making sense of this administration’s pinball trajectory towards next month’s possible summit is a fool’s errand. Yet that is what Pyongyang, and the rest of us, must do. North Korea had already warned that it might not attend, but in calibrated terms, taking aim at Mr Bolton for pushing the Libya model and insisting on “abandoning nuclear weapons first, compensating afterwards”. Intentionally or not, Mr Trump doubled down by spelling out the prospect of regime change and “total decimation” if no deal is reached. This is precisely why the North wants its WMDs: leaders without them are more easily removed. The advance of Mr Bolton and Mike Pompeo, and then the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, have made it still less likely that the North can either achieve or trust a security guarantee.