Trump's Singapore gambit is money

President Donald Trump has signaled his opening -- and maybe best -- gambit when he meets with Kim Jong Un in Singapo...

Posted: Jun 10, 2018 5:05 AM
Updated: Jun 10, 2018 5:05 AM

President Donald Trump has signaled his opening -- and maybe best -- gambit when he meets with Kim Jong Un in Singapore in the coming days.

It's money -- an improved economy for the Hermit Kingdom.

Trump, speaking of the leaders of Japan and South Korea, on Thursday told reporters, "I know that Prime Minister Abe and President Moon have told me, very strongly, that they are going to go, and they will help them economically, tremendously."

Financial inducements are not a new ploy for Trump trying to fix problems in the international arena, but it manifestly failed the last time he used money to induce a recalcitrant party to talks.

A month after recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump warned that aid to Palestinians could be cut if they didn't come to talks.

"We give them tremendous amounts, hundreds of millions of dollars," the President said at the World Economic Forum in January. "That money is on the table. Because why should we do that as a country if they're doing nothing for us?

"And what we want to do for them is help them. We want to create peace and save lives."

Palestinian leaders have so far refused to engage with Trump, who appears not to grasp Palestinians' long dislike of anything looking like a "land for money" deal.

That doesn't mean financial inducements won't work on Kim. Indeed, they may have been the biggest factor getting the repressive dictator to Singapore in the first place, but it does mean knowing Korea well will massively improve Trump's chance of even limited success.

A further indicator that money is at the heart of Trump's plan to get the North Korean leader to give up his nukes came with this disclaimer on Thursday from the President: America won't foot the bill. "We, on the other hand, are very far away. We're very, very far away. But Japan will be helping. I believe China will be helping economically, also."

The bottom line for Kim is he can't run his repression without money.

But will he fold for a few dollars more? It's very unlikely.

Back in mid-May, North Korea's vice foreign minister said, "The US is trumpeting as if it would offer economic compensation and benefit in case we abandon nuke. But we have never had any expectation of US support in carrying out our economic construction and will not at all make such a deal in future, too."

It would be na-ve to think the vice minister, who is still in office, was not speaking without Kim's say-so.

Trump's ability to convince China that he might just trigger nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula was likely part of what convinced President Xi Jinping to toughen sanctions and what tipped Kim towards the talks table.

His economy is widely believed to be under the twin, interwoven strains of more stringent sanctions and the cost of his accelerated missile and nuclear bomb programs.

Those programs hastened the sanctions, but Kim likely calculated they would.

The conundrum for him is that the more he made his people sacrifice -- reportedly through low wages -- to fund nuclear and missile programs that he wanted to threaten the US with, the higher the stakes for backing down to Trump's demands have become.

Yielding to Trump would mean selling out the suffering of North Koreans, and it could bring Kim closer to the coup he reportedly spends his waking hours worrying about.

So, however the money comes in, he cannot be seen as climbing down.

For this reason, Kim has lapped up the attention lavished on him by Xi, Moon Jae-in and the Russian foreign minister.

Each of those leaders will be acutely aware of the nuance of Kim's predicament and how to exploit it for their own advantage, as will Kim.

Now that Xi has been at the sharp end of Trump's spiky rhetoric on trade tariffs, he may be less inclined to do as Trump wants and keep up tough the sanctions on Kim.

If so, it may well rip a hole in Trump's belief that he still has leverage over Kim, if he needs it with more sanctions. "We have a list of over 300 massive, in some cases, sanctions to put on North Korea, and I've decided to hold that until we can make a deal," the President said this week.

How much of this fine detail does Trump actually grasp? It is unclear. He insisted on Thursday that he doesn't need to be well-prepared: "This isn't a question of preparation. It's a question of whether or not people want it to happen, and we'll know that very quickly."

Perhaps he calculates what Kim fears more than a lack of money to run his regime is no regime at all. And a Trumpian "fire and fury" threat may be required, too, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to suggest while talking to reporters. "It's actually the possession of those nuclear weapons that create the greatest risk to North Korea," Pompeo said.

Trump's diplomatic point man, Pompeo believes the President has understood enough about the North Korea situation in his "near-daily" briefings on "military aspects, commercial, economic aspects of it, the history of the relationship."

If, as Trump appears to believe, deals are best done by powerful bosses face to face, a lot could turn on how he sells his money pitch.

Kim gets that in spades and has undoubtedly been using his face time with other leaders to find just enough money to keep his scheming and repression on track.

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