For All His Deals, Trump Has Never Faced an Adversary Like Kim Jong Un
Posted June 10, 2018 9:42 p.m. EDT
SINGAPORE — President Donald Trump has imagined himself at the center of high-stakes nuclear negotiations since at least the mid-1980s, when he tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Reagan administration that it needed a New York real estate deal-maker to lead arms-control talks with the Soviet Union.
When, in 1989, he ran into the man who filled that job for President George H.W. Bush, he had a bit of negotiating advice: Arrive late, poke your finger into your adversary’s chest and swear at him with a vulgar insult, he told Richard R. Burt.
Now, Trump finally has a nuclear negotiation of his own to conduct, not with the Russians, but with a North Korean leader half his age: Kim Jong Un, the country’s volatile, repressive leader.
But at Tuesday’s summit meeting, Trump seems certain not to follow his own advice on how to handle the talks, which involve a nuclear arsenal that is much smaller but in some ways scarier, because of North Korea’s unpredictability, than what threatened the United States during the Cold War.
Trump has arrived in Singapore bringing offers of a peace treaty, an American diplomatic presence in Pyongyang and economic aid, including burger joints in the North, rather than jabs and threats.
And for all his boasts about his deal-making prowess, Trump has never been in a faceoff with an adversary like this one, a ruthless dictator who has imprisoned huge numbers of his citizens in brutal gulags and summarily executed or assassinated challengers.
He has also never been in a negotiation with the risks of failure so stark.
Neither has Kim, who, until this year, had never met with another world leader or left his country as head of state. He will be surrounded, however, by officials who have worn down the United States in one stalemate after another for decades.
Both his father and grandfather agreed, as far back as 1994, to trade away their country’s atomic ambitions for energy, aid and the North’s reintegration with the world. All those agreements started with immense promise, and ultimately failed.
How Trump and Kim — both thin-skinned and eager never to show weakness — will interact is the great drama of the summit meeting.
Over the past year, to gain leverage, they have both shown themselves adherents of the “madman” theory of negotiation, expressing a willingness to take extreme action to get what they want.
Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” down upon North Korea and to “totally destroy” it.
North Korea, which has demonstrated it has solved the mysteries of merging nuclear warheads with missiles, warned in November it had successfully tested a missile with a “super-large heavy warhead which is capable of striking the whole mainland of the U.S.”
Despite all the bellicose rhetoric, including the exchange of personal insults, both men seem determined to declare the encounter a success, no matter how vague the outcome.
Trump and Kim are heavily invested at home in declaring a positive result, reached on their terms, even if the details are left to others.
And both know they are highly unlikely at this meeting to resolve their differences on the weapons themselves, which is why they may focus instead on a peace treaty that would end a 65-year-old armistice and enable them, in Henry Kissinger’s famously overly optimistic line about Vietnam, to declare that peace is at hand.
If the relationship goes downhill from there, as it usually does in interactions between Washington and Pyongyang, it will come after the talks conclude, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart arm wrestle over the meaning, and pace, of “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” which is how Pompeo described the only acceptable outcome.
Most experts believe that standard is unattainable in the case of North Korea, and that insisting on it sets up the Trump administration for failure. But Pompeo has repeatedly doubled down on this objective, as recently as Friday, and so it has become the only measure of success.
And as this negotiation plays out, attaining that goal is pretty much the only way that Trump can plausibly claim that he got more out of North Korea than President Barack Obama got out of Iran.
For Trump, the looming question is whether his bet that Kim wants economic development more than nuclear weapons is right.
“I understand why the administration is offering so many carrots, but I’m afraid Trump thinks Kim is a businessman,” said Jung H. Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who oversaw North Korea analysis for U.S. intelligence agencies until a year ago.
“What he’s forgetting is that Kim isn’t looking for wealth,” he said. “He has all the wealth in the country. He’s looking for legitimacy.” And Kim is on his way to obtaining that stature as a global statesman, having met twice with the presidents of China and South Korea. At 9 a.m. Tuesday in Singapore, he can add Trump to his list.
Some of those who have prepared Trump for dealing with Korea, who insisted on anonymity to speak about their briefings with the president, say they worry that the president is so supremely confident in his negotiating skills that he has eschewed detailed briefings on how Kim thinks about the world.
When he said over the weekend that he would know “in one minute” after talking with Kim whether the North Korean was ready to denuclearize, it was a declaration that negotiating instinct, rather than deep study of the topic, was the way to success.
“Just my touch, my feel,” he said. “It’s what I do.”
The North Koreans have their own style of negotiating, too. When the United States was discussing an armistice to halt the 1950-53 Korean War, the chief North Korean delegate embarrassed his American counterpart by showing up for talks in the American ambassador’s car — which his invading troops had seized as they rampaged through Seoul at the war’s start.
The North Koreans had also secretly sawed several inches off the American delegate’s chair so their negotiator could look down on him during the haggling.
None of that gamesmanship is likely to happen Tuesday. But the opening minute may say a lot.
When Kim met the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, at the Demilitarized Zone in late April, he took his hand and guided him over into North Korean territory, an unexpected power play. There will be no equivalent border on Tuesday, but Kim will surely be looking to use whatever edge he can get.
And he has two primary sources of leverage: his newly acquired capabilities to put San Francisco, and maybe Chicago, within reach of his nuclear weapons, and North Korea’s long-standing ability to destroy Seoul with conventional artillery arrayed along the Demilitarized Zone.
While Kim may see utility in giving up some of those capabilities in return for economic benefits, he knows his nuclear arsenal is his best bet to stay in power.
The question is how Trump broadens his repertoire of incentives to Kim that go beyond the economy.
He could dangle the withdrawal of tens of thousands of American forces in the South, whose presence he has long argued should be ended anyway because of overextended U.S. defense commitments and the South’s trade surplus.
He could volunteer to keep American bombers and nuclear-capable submarines and ships from brandishing their weapons on visits to the South — knowing that if needed, in the most extreme nuclear emergency, an American missile could hit the North from Nebraska. But both sides face the issue of how much they can trust the other.
The few South Korean officials, including Moon, who have met with Kim say they have all come away with a conviction that the North’s leader is sincere in his commitment to strike a deal and that he has a broader vision of his security than his father did.
“Chairman Kim once again clearly expressed his firm commitment to a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Moon declared after his second meeting with Kim last month.
South Korea’s president added: “What is not so clear to him is how firmly he can trust the United States’ commitment to ending hostile relations and providing security guarantees for his government should it denuclearize.”
Regardless of the outcome of the Singapore summit meeting, Kim has already won a lot. Becoming the first North Korean leader to meet with a sitting American president, Kim has proved to his people that he was a force the Americans have to reckon with.
That may be enough, at least for now.