His negotiators are in a bind: putting the U.S. and North Korean leaders in a room is a high-risk gamble.
Heading into his second summit with Kim Jong Un this week, Donald Trump is making a striking argument: With his singular smarts, deal-making prowess, and sizzling personal chemistry with Kim, he is the only one capable of eliminating the North Korean nuclear threat.
But Trump’s approach of “I alone can fix it” (which he initially espoused as a presidential candidate in reference to America’s broken political system) has undercut his diplomats and technocrats by signaling to North Korea that he is the man to make a deal with.
Trump’s negotiators have thus been left in a bind: The only way to make major progress under such circumstances is to get the U.S. and North Korean leaders in a room, but they can’t get them in a room without taking a high-risk gamble.
That’s what Trump’s meeting with Kim in Vietnam, on February 27–28, amounts to. At best, the two leaders will achieve a breakthrough on peace and denuclearization that has eluded their predecessors for decades. At worst, the United States will reward North Korea without reducing the danger it poses. Somewhere in the middle would be a repeat of the leaders’ first summit in Singapore last June: a spectacle with little of substance to show for it.
“Both leaders are free to put aside their briefing books—assuming they even look at them—and move according to their instincts and sense of the possible. Bureaucracies and advisors working with kings, emperors and presidents have known that for centuries,” wrote Stanford’s Robert Carlin, a North Korea scholar who recently held the most detailed discussion yet with Trump’s special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, on the administration’s vision for diplomacy with Kim.
“Many experts would be more comfortable with the working-level process leading, possibly and eventually, to the summit,” he added. “But we have the reverse, and no one really knows what it will mean to ski downhill from the top of Mt. Everest.”
Georgetown’s Elizabeth Saunders, who has studied Trump’s approach to meetings with world leaders, told me that the differences between the president and his aides are leading the North Koreans to “want to deal directly with Trump.” For instance, National Security Adviser John Bolton has long opposed the type of diplomacy that Trump is now conducting with Kim. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his team are more flexible, but also more insistent than the president that North Korea make serious concessions on its nuclear-weapons program before receiving benefits from the United States. Whatever misgivings they might have, both officials highlight the importance of Trump and Kim’s relationship.
Asked whether U.S. officials can trust Kim, Bolton, a man once fond of describing North Korea’s leaders as inveterate liars, simply responded that “the negotiation really is between the president and Kim Jong Un.” Regarding denuclearization, Pompeo humbly noted that “we hope when the two leaders get together again, they can make substantial progress.”
What’s most important is, “I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un” and “I've done a job” with North Korea that “nobody else” could have, Trump declared earlier this month. If any administration but his were in office, he’s said, the United States would be in “a nice, big, fat war in Asia.”
For Trump, this “great man” theory of international affairs extends well beyond North Korea. “He and I are the only two people that can bring about massive and very positive change, on trade and far beyond, between our two great nations,” the president has asserted regarding Chinese President Xi Jinping. The U.S. relationship with Russia “has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago,” he proclaimed after huddling with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
South Korea’s leaders, in seeking to steer Trump away from the military pressure that threatened to engulf the Korean peninsula in war just over a year ago, have reinforced the message. During a recent visit to the United States, the speaker of the legislature stated that Trump is “renowned for his bold decision-making and negotiation skills” and playing “a determinant role” in the inter-Korean peace process. President Moon Jae In has lauded the U.S. president as “the only person who can solve [the North Korean] problem.” (Trump has lapped such lines up, once repeating a similar comment from Moon even as he acknowledged how “braggadocious” he sounded.) I’ve spoken with multiple South Korean officials who echoed their president’s call for Trump to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. “Nobel Prize to Trump, peace to Koreans,” one adviser to Moon told me.
Crucially, the North Koreans have adopted a similar orientation toward the talks. Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. negotiator with North Korea under George W. Bush, recently noted how former colleagues of his struggled to craft a joint statement ahead of the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. “The North Koreans said, ‘No, we’re not interested. We don’t sense that your president is either, and therefore we’re just going to go and’—they didn’t use the term ‘wing it,’ but that’s exactly what they had in mind,” he recounted. A month after Singapore, when Pompeo flew to Pyongyang and pressed the North Koreans to take additional denuclearization measures, his North Korean counterpart reportedly picked up a cellphone and defiantly responded, “Why don’t you call your president?”
In August, a North Korean state-run newspaper published an editorial that drew a sharp distinction between the American president, who harbored a “dream” about establishing peace between the two nations, and other U.S. officials, who were “derailing dialogue” by focusing on North Korea’s nuclear facilities.
“North Korea wants Trump to take another leap of faith with Kim—just as he did by saying yes to the Singapore summit,” the analyst Ankit Panda wrote at the time.
Kim has also written flowery letters to Trump, praising the “unique approach of myself and Your Excellency Mr. President” to resolving the conflict between their countries and reportedly grumbling about having to liaise with Pompeo.
In a background briefing with reporters last Thursday, a senior Trump administration official dismissed the idea that North Korea’s leader isn’t interested in dealing with Pompeo. Kim “has never, to my knowledge, asked the president … for any other representative to work with him other than the duly appointed secretary of state of the United States of America,” the official claimed.
Nevertheless, North Korean negotiators abruptly canceled a planned meeting with Pompeo last fall and resisted meeting Biegun for months. When the North Koreans finally did meet with them, it was during a visit to Washington in January when Trump announced the next summit.
During last week’s briefing, the administration official admitted the instrumental role Trump and Kim have played in jump-starting negotiations. “We hit something of a holding pattern with the North Koreans for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to us” in November and December, the official recalled. But “in late December, through an exchange of letters between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un, the engagement turned back on in full force, and we saw a sequence of rapid-fire events.”
As a result, Trump and Kim have once again reached a summit. But the Trump administration has yet to prove the wisdom of skiing down Everest. The Singapore meeting staked out broad objectives of peace and denuclearization and significantly reduced military tensions between the United States and North Korea. Yet as Trump’s own military and intelligence officials have attested, North Korea’s conventional and nuclear capabilities have remained just as dangerous (if not grown more formidable), and Kim’s government hasn’t demonstrated intent to fully relinquish its weapons of mass destruction. What Trump typically touts as his greatest success so far—Pyongyang’s suspension of nuclear and missile tests—occurred last spring ahead of Singapore, as did other achievements, such as the return of American hostages and the North’s purported destruction of a nuclear-test site.
In the days leading up to the Vietnam summit, administration officials have suggested that a deal could take the form of U.S. moves toward peace in exchange for Kim taking corresponding steps toward denuclearization. But thus far it appears they are a long way off from that.
The administration official briefing reporters last week said that while a team of 16 American diplomats and technical experts held three days of talks in Pyongyang earlier this month, it was merely “an opportunity to preview the full range of issues that each side had.” The official acknowledged that it wasn’t even clear whether Kim would give up his nuclear arsenal, and that the two sides were still sorting out the definition of “denuclearization.” (The Trump administration has been saying for months that Kim agreed to denuclearize in Singapore.)
If the two sides do get beyond the basics, a deal could potentially include a range of elements.
Trump and Kim could declare an end to the Korean War or agree to establish liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang. Trump could also ease or permit exceptions to economic sanctions. In return, Kim could allow international inspectors to verify the destruction of certain nuclear-weapons sites, such as the Yongbyon facility; freeze nuclear and missile programs in place; or put restrictions on the long-range missile program that directly affects the United States.
What’s clear from Trump’s North Korea diplomacy is that he revels in the spectacle of the talks and is willing to forge a better relationship with Pyongyang even if denuclearization lags behind. He also tends to characterize the U.S. military alliance with South Korea, which North Korea considers threatening, as more of a financial burden than a strategic blessing for the United States.
Administration officials say that a drawdown of American troops in South Korea, which Trump just pressured the South Korean government to spend more money to support, will not be a bargaining chip in Vietnam. But in Singapore, the president blindsided allies and advisers by announcing a suspension of U.S.–South Korea military exercises.
In his State of the Union address, the president described his “bold new diplomacy” with Kim as a “historic push for peace on the Korean peninsula.” Trump made no mention of the matter that brought the two men together in the first place: denuclearization.