Trump’s nuclear failures from Iran to North Korea

In just over a year, Donald Trump has managed to nudge the world closer to conflict on both ends of the Asian continent.

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People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on the cancelled summit between the US and North Korea, in Seoul, South Korea on May 25, 2018 [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

After months of exhilarating anticipation, US President Donald Trump abruptly ditched a scheduled summit with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un. 

The US president vaguely cited North Korea’s “open hostility” and “trail of broken promises” as a pretext for calling off the historic meeting. He warned the North Korean regime against committing any “foolish or reckless acts”. 

Trump has placed the US military on alert, signalling its readiness to engage in another round of brinkmanship with nuclear-capable North Korea.

And just like that, both protagonists are now back to square one. If anything, the US president may have snuffed the life out of an unprecedented opportunity to end the Korean conflict. 

Just weeks earlier, the US unilaterally withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal – a binding international agreement supported by all major powers, except Trump. To careful observers, both decisions were shocking, yet far from surprising.

The Trump administration simply lacks the basic strategic understanding and diplomatic finesse to cope with perplexing foreign policy challenges. When confronted with difficult geopolitical realities, Trump seems to prefer turning things into reality show episodes.

An unreliable superpower

Trump’s announcement was met by a melange of puzzlement, outrage and profound anxiety across the world. South Korea responded in total confusion, struggling to find a way out of the latest plot twist in the Trump-Kim saga.

South Korean presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom admitted, “We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means.”

The visibly flustered South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who played an instrumental role in facilitating the summit, was confessedly perplexed. He described Trump’s decision as deeply “regrettable”. 


Days earlier, he visited the White House to lay the ground for the historic summit between the American and North Korean leaders. Throughout his meeting with Trump, Moon patiently explained the intricacies of dealing with the “hermit kingdom” and the necessity for a diplomatic approach to the conflict.

Back in April, the South Korean leader held a crucial summit with Kim Jong-un at the Panmunjom demilitarised zone. There, for the first time in history, both sides seriously discussed the prospect of full denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula. 

Moon staked his presidency on unlocking the Korean conflict. In an event of actual war, Seoul, which lies within the range of North Korean artilleries, would likely be the first and biggest victim.

Major powers and allies around the world have called on both sides to maintain the diplomatic momentum and refrain from escalation. 

French President Emmanuel Macron said, “the process with the goal of denuclearization, this process should continue” in order to achieve peace on the Peninsula.

Yet, frustration is running high among allies. In recent days, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of the “free world”, went so far as stating that Europe can no longer rely on the US as a source of protection.

One by one, the US’ most important allies have openly questioned the Trump administration’s capacity for global leadership. For them, Washington is an increasingly unreliable superpower, which is beginning to threaten the existing international order with “Trump-style” leadership.

Edging towards conflict

Interestingly, North Korea responded with uncharacteristic restraint, expressing its continued “willingness to sit at any time, in any way to resolve issues”. All of a sudden, Pyongyang looked like the adult in the room.

Yet, it’s hard to imagine that the regime would maintain its equanimity for long. In the past month, they have not only released three American prisoners, but have also shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear testing siteBoth moves were crucial confidence-building measures in advance of the scheduled summit in Singapore in June. In exchange, however, the Trump administration insisted on unilateral, comprehensive, and immediate nuclear disarmament.


Hawks such as Trump’s recently appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton insisted on a “Libya model” of complete nuclear surrender on the part of North Korea as a precondition for lifting sanctions and improved bilateral relations.

For anyone familiar with North Korea’s strategic calculus, however, this was an outrageous non-starter. After all, what Pyongyang prefers is a step-by-step approach, whereby both sides de-escalate their confrontation on a gradual and reciprocal basis over time. 

There is just no way for Pyongyang to entirely give up its strongest bargaining chip (nuclear weapons) without first securing massive economic benefits, ending its diplomatic isolation, and receiving a security guarantee from the US.

The Trump administration, however, sought nothing short of a big-bang package deal, on its own terms. As for Iran, they unilaterally reneged on a binding international agreement, even if Tehran has consistently complied with terms of the nuclear deal.

So either the American hawks are strategically naive or simply cynical, bent on undermining every roll of the dice for peace.

The upshot is that both Iran and North Korea now feel betrayed and increasingly outraged. And they will likely up the ante in response to Trump’s perfunctory decisions. 

A year into power, the controversial American president has nudged the world closer to two potential conflicts on the opposite ends of the Asian continent.

More fundamentally, countries around the world, both friends and foes, are wondering whether the US is a country that can be negotiated with at all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.