The grisly news that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un allegedly executed his envoy for nuclear talks with the United States didn’t come as a total surprise. Rumors have swirled for weeks that Kim purged his negotiating team over the collapse of his second summit with President Donald Trump in February.
North Korean state media published ominous language about “stern judgment” for “traitors” on Thursday, which a South Korean newspaper cited along with the account of an anonymous source to claim that some North Korean officials had been gunned down and others imprisoned. Though the report is unconfirmed, with the U.S. and South Korean governments both stating that they’re looking into the matter, it has nonetheless elicited an outcry among Trump’s critics.
Here was the ruthless totalitarian whom the American president has professed to admire and trust (“We fell in love”) and whose latest missile tests Trump has doggedly downplayed, despite the concerns of his allies in Asia and his own advisers (Kim “knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”). Just last week, Trump gleefully applauded Kim for calling former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden “a low IQ individual.”
“OMG. A reminder of who Kim J[o]ng UN really is. Eyes wide open, Mr. President,” the Obama-era ambassador Michael McFaul stated on Twitter in reaction to the reports. “Kim Jong Un is a homicidal tyrant who deliberately starves his people and murders those who di[s]please him,” wrote Democratic Senator Chris Murphy. “It’s simply heartbreaking to know … that his biggest global cheerleader is the President of the United States of America.”
The explanation for Trump’s bizarre fawning over Kim, however, isn’t necessarily as simple as the president not understanding who Kim really is, or alternately understanding who Kim really is and cheering on his reign of terror.
Trump once offered a utilitarian rationale for why he heaps flattery on North Korea’s dictator, who operates gulags and assassinated his own half brother: “Let it be whatever it is to get the job done,” he said last fall, after a first meeting between both leaders ended a year of military brinkmanship over Kim’s development of long-range nuclear weapons that could reach the United States. “I have a good chemistry with him. Look at the horrible threats that were made. No more threats.”
That ceased being true after the breakdown of nuclear talks between the two leaders in Vietnam earlier this year. Kim has resumed his threats, and his government has directed its wrath at advisers such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who have resisted relieving sanctions on North Korea until it commits to giving up its weapons of mass destruction. So far, though, Kim has stopped short of reviving nuclear and long-range missile tests that would likely set off Trump, in a sign that he’s still interested in making a deal with the American president, if not Trump’s more hard-line subordinates.
When I asked William Ury, a co-author of the business-negotiation bible Getting to Yes, about Trump’s perplexing praise for Kim, he told me that he saw a clear method to the president’s seeming madness—one that he felt was deliberate because Trump has exhibited a pattern of behavior, even amid overwhelming criticism.
Trump appears to be operating with the philosophy “The cheapest concession you can make in a negotiation is to give the other fellow a little respect,” which buys you a counterpart willing to hear you out and maybe even work with you, said Ury, who is also a co-founder of Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation. “I’ve found that to be true over 40 years of being in this field, whether you’re talking family, business, or high-stakes nuclear showdowns.”
The president also seems to be adhering to a principle recommended in Ury’s book: being “soft on the people” you’re negotiating with (in this case, Kim) while being “hard on the problem” (in this case, maintaining unprecedented international sanctions on North Korea and walking away from the Vietnam talks when Kim wouldn’t agree to completely denuclearize).
In their book, Ury and his co-author argue that this counterintuitive strategy works because of the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, which posits that “people dislike inconsistency and will act to eliminate it.” By demonstrating “that you are attacking the problem, not them,” they write, you encourage your counterparts to “overcome this dissonance” by separating themselves “from the problem in order to join you in doing something about it.”
The principle is also practiced by hostage negotiators, who are trained to listen empathetically and patiently to hostage takers to coax them into releasing their captives and surrendering to police, Ury told me. The negotiators build a rapport with the hostage taker to effectively transmit difficult messages, and they distinguish between the person and the person’s behavior. (As one hostage negotiator explained to Harvard Business Review, “Before the bad guy demands anything, I always ask him if he needs something. Obviously I’m not going to get him a car. I’m not going to let him go. But … when you give somebody a little something, he feels obligated to give you something back.” Or as another once summed it up to The Atlantic, “The nicer you are, the harder you can push.”)
Assuming there’s some considered thought to Trump’s courting of Kim, it’s not applied consistently. The president, for example, similarly lauds his personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, even as he engages Xi in a brutal multibillion-dollar trade war. Yet he rarely flatters allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Whether it’s his complaints about lackluster German defense spending or grievances about Canadian trade practices, Trump is often hard on the problem and the people.
Nevertheless, Ury isn’t the only one to spot a certain logic to Trump’s approach. This week Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea, told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that he thought Trump’s flattery of Kim had boxed in the North Korean leader. As Thae sees it, this allows the U.S. president to keep up the economic pressure on Kim while deterring him from exiting the nuclear negotiations or conducting nuclear and missile tests that could trigger a forceful U.S. response.
The South Korean and especially the Japanese governments are likely unhappy about Trump trivializing North Korea’s recent weapons tests in their neighborhood. But a senior South Korean official, speaking to me and other reporters on the condition of anonymity earlier this spring, suggested that Trump’s oft-repeated message to Kim that he’s in “no rush” to wrap up the denuclearization process was designed to give the North Korean leader space to make difficult decisions—and should not necessarily be taken as evidence that the U.S. president is truly in no rush. Trump’s “public message has been pretty well orchestrated,” the official said, and the “positive message and signals” that the president has sent have helped calm Kim after he suffered a humiliating defeat at Trump’s hands during the Vietnam summit and took a long train ride home.
“Erring a little bit on the side of relationship and respect and saying nice things is a very small price to pay for the potential benefit [of resolving the Korean conflict] and to avert the potential danger” of sparking a new one, Ury told me.
The problem is that so far, Trump has little to show for the respect he’s given Kim, other than a channel for dialogue between the countries’ leaders and a suspension of North Korean nuclear and long-range missile tests. And in the meantime, Trump’s sided with yet another autocrat.
If Trump is playing mind games with Kim, however, Kim may be doing the same with Trump. In sidelining hard-line officials such as Kim Yong Chol, who lost his position as the country’s lead negotiator with the U.S. and is one of the officials reported this week to be imprisoned, North Korea’s leader may be trying to encourage the U.S. president to respond in kind by dismissing (if not in a Kim-style purge) his hard-line advisers, said Joseph Yun, who served as the North Korea envoy for Barack Obama and then for Trump from 2016 to 2018. The North Koreans, Yun told me recently, “have clearly figured out that Trump is the deal maker, that he’s the easiest person to deal with in the hierarchy in the United States, and obviously the most effective.”
Trump’s modus operandi, not just with North Korea but also everywhere from China to Iran, is, “he starts off with fire and fury, he bluffs big, and then he settles,” Yun said. (In all these cases, Trump’s approach has yet to succeed.) “I think he does want denuclearization, but he’s beginning to realize that that’s a very, very tough goal.”