A copy of the Asia Economy newspaper featuring images of U.S. President Donald Trump, left, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, and South Korean National Security Council chief Chung Eui-yong speaking in Washington. (Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg)

How to Get to Talks With North Korea

(The Bloomberg View) -- President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is, in itself, no cause for regret. Going ahead with a meeting that had little chance of success would have been a mistake, compounding errors the administration has already made on this issue. The cancellation is an opportunity to rethink, one the president and his advisers need to grasp.

Exactly why Trump won’t meet Kim in Singapore on June 12 is unclear. Perhaps he’s come to think that the North Koreans were never sincere about discussing a formula to abandon their nuclear-weapons program. In any event, Trump’s withdrawal avoids the risk that he might have struck a bad deal in pursuit of a moment’s applause — and that’s all to the good. The door to future negotiations hasn’t closed. North Korea says it wants to keep talking. What matters now is to get this process on to a more productive track.

This will take some doing. Trump’s approach up to now has weakened the U.S. position. If the U.S. had shown it was prepared to negotiate in good faith and the North wasn’t, it would now be in a stronger position. Instead, South Korea’s government may grudgingly agree with the North’s charge that the U.S. is not to be trusted. China will be confirmed in that assessment. Both countries may soon be urging a lifting of sanctions. 

The administration should assure its allies and China that it’s still open to serious talks. U.S. diplomats should stay in contact with North Korean counterparts and do the preparatory work that should already have been done. They’ll need to repair the partnership with South Korean officials, reportedly blindsided by Trump’s announcement. The U.S., not North Korea, must be seen as the party most committed to a peaceful resolution. 

So the administration’s nuclear threats aren’t helpful — or all that credible, either. Bluster and bullying on trade and other foreign-policy issues are plainly counterproductive. Maintaining sanctions won’t be easy, and the U.S. needs friends to help. And when it comes to China, linking sanctions enforcement to trade is unwise. Enforcing sanctions is a U.N. obligation: Don’t make that a bargaining chip in a clash over agricultural tariffs. 

One thing hasn’t changed. A negotiated settlement offers the only real prospect for peace on the Korean peninsula. Achieving that settlement will probably require the U.S. to accept something less than prompt and complete denuclearization — but something less than that could nonetheless reduce the North Korean threat to a more manageable level. That’s well worth pursuing, and if it happens would deserve to be celebrated. But to get there, Trump and his advisers will need to change their approach, do their homework, and start measuring their words.

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