United States

Trump was right to walk away, say critics

Despite the bipartisan consensus on move, some criticise him for attending summit

Pro-American protesters waving South Korean and US flags during a rally denouncing the South Korean government's dovish approach and policies on North Korea in Seoul yesterday.
Pro-American protesters waving South Korean and US flags during a rally denouncing the South Korean government's dovish approach and policies on North Korea in Seoul yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Even the President's toughest critics at home concurred: Mr Donald Trump was right to walk away from the Hanoi summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, though several criticised him for having been there at all.

The bipartisan consensus over his foreign policy move stood in stark contrast to the fiercely partisan bickering following his former lawyer Michael Cohen's explosive public testimony just the day before.

As Mr Cohen accused his former boss of being a liar and cheat who was involved in illegally paying off an adult film star, Republicans called him a convicted liar while Democrats cast the testimony as a confirmation of their fears about the President.

But as Washington woke to news that the talks with North Korea had collapsed and the President was on his way back home earlier than planned, they made no secret of their support. Mr Trump's political opponents - Democrat leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer - criticised him on several fronts, but ultimately agreed he had made the correct decision.

"I was pleased to see the President recognise North Korea's unwillingness to strike a comprehensive deal... President Trump did the right thing by walking away and not cutting a poor deal for the sake of a photo op," Mr Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, said in a moment of rare praise on Thursday.

Ms Pelosi, the House Speaker, called Mr Kim the "big winner" of the summit for scoring face-to-face meetings with the US President. Despite her scathing remarks, she eventually concluded: "They wanted lifting sanctions without denuclearisation. I am glad that the President walked away from that.

"Diplomacy is important, we always support it, but the prospect of success seemed dim in the light of the insincerity of Kim Jong Un."

Republican leaders, unsurprisingly, were more effusive in their praise. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "High-level diplomacy can carry high-level risks, but the President is to be commended for walking away when it became clear insufficient progress had been made on denuclearisation."

Stimson Centre nuclear security research analyst David Kim said Mr Trump's move would silence the many sceptics in the House who thought he would get played in Hanoi, the way some reckoned he had been at the Singapore summit when he unilaterally cancelled joint military exercises with Seoul after meeting the North Korean leader.

Mr David Kim also noted that under the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, the Secretary of State was due to report to Congress at the end of this month on any deal, road map or progress to address threats posed by North Korea.

"If he had reached a deal that was bad and had no meat to the bones, he would have gotten even more criticism for failing to reach a good deal. Walking away... gives him time and flexibility to get more members of Congress on board," said Mr Kim, who previously worked in the State Department under the Obama administration.

Instead of the abrupt collapse of the summit, it was President Trump's comments that he believed Chairman Kim's account of how American college student Otto Warmbier died after being jailed in North Korea which drew the most ire from those back home.

Recounting his conversation with the North Korean leader on the case, Mr Trump had said at a media conference in Hanoi: "He tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word."

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he did not see Mr Kim as "somebody who is a friend", adding: "We know what happened to Otto. We know what this country has done. I support the President in his effort to denuclearise them, but I do not have a misbelief of who this leader is."

Others zeroed in on the fruitlessness of the summit and called it a waste of taxpayer monies, arguing that more work needed to have been done by lower-level diplomats first.

Mr Trump said Chairman Kim had asked for the complete lifting of sanctions in exchange for closing down its Yongbyon nuclear facility.

His account was disputed by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, who said later that Pyongyang had asked for partial lifting of US sanctions, in particular those which hampered the civilian economy and North Koreans' livelihood.

Referring to Mr Trump's account, Stanford University political science professor Michael McFaul wrote on Twitter: "If that was the offer, then yes, you have to walk. But shouldn't we have known that this was the offer before organising a second presidential summit?... You don't fly the President halfway around the world to achieve nothing."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2019, with the headline Trump was right to walk away, say critics. Subscribe