The Trump administration's bizarre on-again, off-again dalliance with Kim Jong Un and North Korea took a series of strange turns this weekend. Just days after the president theatrically and abruptly canceled the summit with an overwrought letter ("I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me") and a tweet ("Sadly, I was forced to cancel the Summit Meeting"), the president confirmed reports that a U.S. team was still engaged in preparations for the planned June 12 meeting to take place. He subsequently confirmed that senior Pyongyang official Kim Yong Chol is en route to New York City. Kim will be the most senior North Korean official to visit the U.S. since 2000.
What the hell is going on here? Is the summit a go?
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert issued a terse confirmation: "We continue to prepare for a meeting between the president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un." Meanwhile, the president, unable to maintain his focus on any issue, careened from one subject to the next during the long holiday weekend, lashing out at Sally Yates, live-tweeting Fox News programs, issuing a self-congratulatory statement for Memorial Day, and indulging his latest conspiracy theory about how President Obama and the deep state infiltrated his campaign with FBI spies to torpedo his presidential run.
In other words, there's no evidence that the White House considers North Korea to be a crisis important enough to command more than an hour on the president's agenda, let alone his undivided attention, whatever that might mean in practice.
Eighteen months into this administration, it should be clear that what we see is what we get. There is no master plan behind the president's erratic statements, abrupt decisions, and strange turns of phrase. Expecting policy constancy, let alone carefully considered rhetoric, will only lead you down a lonely path to disappointment, despair, and confusion. But thinking that the president is just winging it from moment to moment misses one consistent theme of his behavior and policy: his sympathy for authoritarianism and his determination to make economic opportunism the most important foreign policy principle for the United States.
The Trump administration's North Korea policy represents everything you need to know about what you might (generously!) call the president's "vision" for the international system. You'll notice that in his tweet, the president predicts that North Korea will soon be prosperous ("a great economic and financial Nation") if Kim Jong Un simply cooperates with America to dial down nuclear tensions and subsequently open up the country's economy. He says nothing about the need for democracy, human rights, or transparency because he has no use for or interest in these concepts.
This gets to the heart of what Trump wants from North Korea. As he learns on nearly every day of his unraveling, disastrous presidency, things like the rule of law, countervailing centers of power, and political opposition empowered with tools of oversight and accountability are all things that hamper the dictator's ability to rule capriciously by fiat, and to enrich himself and his associates. That's why Russia is in and Germany is out, and why Poland is suddenly in the inner circle while Canada is on the outside looking in. President Trump is unapologetically drawn to tyrants who are unconstrained by other institutions, men (they are always men) who treat minorities, migrants, and other people deemed unnecessary with cruelty and disdain. He seems to feel a special bond with leaders, like the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, who instruct agents of the state to treat the marginalized not just with contempt but with lawlessness made crueler by the absence of basic human decency. What matters are high-rises and beach resorts. Law and order. Prosperity and obedience. The purpose of human society is either the fulfillment of racist fantasies, self-enrichment, or both. They are not generally unrelated.
For the president, North Korea is not at all a natural adversary of the United States. In Trump's mind, Koreans just a few miles to the south have proven themselves capable of being rich, the pinnacle achievement of human civilization. There are no Muslims there to complicate the president's appraisal. The problem with the regime's structure and policies isn't that they deprive millions of people of their basic human dignity and rights, but rather that they have led to poverty, weakness, defiance, and isolation.
The thing that puzzles the president more than anything else about this country is not its pursuit of nuclear weapons (which he loves) but rather the choice not to give in to the gangster capitalism sweeping the planet. A Kim who opened up the economy but kept the country's labor gulags intact would probably be just fine with the president. The president cares about the fates of our allies in South Korea and Japan only insofar as they affect America's economic bottom line. He is, it should by now be obvious, willing to embarrass them, sell them out, undercut their negotiating positions, or sacrifice them all.
Even the choice to hold the summit in the capital of a prosperous police state doesn't seem like an accident — Singapore is everything the president would like America to be: fabulously wealthy, deeply undemocratic, vindictively punitive, and wildly unequal. The city has roughly the same level of yawning economic disparity as Trump's increasingly bifurcated New York City. Singapore executes drug traffickers by hanging. Trump must also love the country's bizarre requirement that presidential candidates from the private sector "have experience leading a company with at least $500 million ($370 million) in shareholder equity," according to Freedom House.
That's Trump's kind of place: a dictatorship operated ruthlessly by skyscraper-building casino capitalists. The message that Trump is trying to convey to Kim Jong Un is that this could be you. Not a reviled, lonely tyrant ruling over a landscape of peasants and ruins, and certainly not a Nobel-winning democrat-in-waiting, but a palm-greasing huckster with his name etched on golf resorts half a world away from Pyongyang.
President Trump never really cared about North Korea's nuclear weapons, at least not any more than he did about the ones Tehran might build now that America has carelessly tossed away the Iran deal. If Kim Jong Un is willing to pay the price of entry into the new Trump-led world order, the riches are there for his taking. There will be no Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Disarmament, no intricately plotted monitoring as part of a complex, multilateral deal. Any "denuclearization" will be a sham. The process looks slapdash because it is. It feels unpredictable because it has no higher purpose. Like all the devastated fruits of the president's venal labor, the summit is an empty spectacle, designed for entertainment, marketing and investment, and destined for the same fate.