With little fanfare, certainly not the kind on display during his meetings with Kim Jong Un, the bill is coming due for Donald Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea.
More than sanctions, more than summits, what has been most distinctive about that diplomacy is how the president has thoroughly personalized it—whether by measuring his “nuclear button” against the North Korean leader’s when they were at odds or by feeding a narrative that he and Kim alone could resolve the crisis over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons thanks to their “beautiful” relationship. The innovation brought hope in some circles that Trump might be able to solve a challenge that has bedeviled U.S. administrations for decades. But now the costs of that approach are becoming clearer.
This weekend, for example, in a development that barely registered amid the impeachment frenzy in the United States, U.S. and North Korean officials met in Sweden to revive nuclear negotiations. The talks have been stalled since the latest encounter between Trump and Kim. Over the course of the past year and a half, North Korea has not made any concessions other than a provisional halt in nuclear- and long-range-missile tests, the unverified destruction of a nuclear-test site, and a vague commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
The setting was, relative to the atmosphere surrounding Trump’s summits with Kim, dull by design—a location “meant to avoid symbolism and distraction so the teams can focus on the content of negotiations,” Leif-Eric Easley, a Korea expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, explained as the proceedings got under way.
Yet the talks also seemed set up to fail. For months, North Korean officials delayed restarting these lower-level discussions, placing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the humiliating position of repeatedly promising that negotiations would resume in “a couple of weeks.” And when the North Koreans finally agreed to them, they announced that the talks would last only one day. Soon afterward, Kim’s government announced the successful test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, capping a spate of shorter-range-missile tests that has significantly advanced its nuclear-weapons arsenal.
And fail they did, at least for the moment. In a statement read shortly after the negotiations ended within hours of beginning—so shortly after, in fact, it raised suspicions that this was Pyongyang’s plan all along—the chief North Korean negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, blamed the “breakdown” on his U.S. counterparts not coming to the table with fresh ideas, and suggested that talks be suspended until the end of the year, a period that North Korean officials have ominously described as a deadline for Washington to adopt a more flexible position.
U.S. negotiators tried to cast the impasse in the best light, stating that they’d raised “new initiatives” and describing the discussions as “good.” They noted that the United States and North Korea “will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean peninsula through the course of a single Saturday,” and that they sought “more intensive engagement” and another meeting in the optimistic Pompeoian time frame of a couple of weeks.
The North Korean delegation, however, appeared unwilling to enter into a substantive and structured diplomatic process, let alone technical conversations about dismantling the country’s nuclear program. Instead of presenting themselves as the empowered negotiators U.S. officials had hoped to finally confront after previous rounds of abortive working-level nuclear talks, the North Koreans seemed to once again be primarily in listening mode.
“Rather than the breakdown of talks, what we are seeing resembles classic North Korean negotiating tactics: demand more concessions, minimize denuclearization commitments, and figure out how to cheat,” Easley told me by email. “Kim Myong Gil does not have authority to compromise on anything until approved by Kim Jong Un. He probably went to Stockholm with talking points and instructions to receive the updated U.S. position before walking out to buy time and apply pressure.”
If Kim’s negotiators remain determined to tread water between summits with Trump, that doesn’t bode well for the prospects of a comprehensive nuclear agreement. As the nuclear expert Toby Dalton has observed, concluding such a deal with North Korea would be more complicated than the process of negotiating the nuclear-arms-control treaty known as START was; the United States and the Soviet Union signed START in 1991 after nearly a decade of diplomacy involving “1,000 hours or more of negotiations where you had teams of Soviet and American experts who were living in Geneva, meeting every day,” and churning out hundreds of pages of text. “Presidents don’t negotiate 100-page documents,” he pointed out.
Joseph Yun, who served as Trump’s North Korea envoy at the State Department until 2018, says he thinks the president is more open to easing sanctions on North Korea in return for nuclear concessions than aides such John Bolton, his recently departed national security adviser, were. In a sign that he has pressing concerns about his former boss being attracted to some sort of halfway deal with Kim, Bolton dedicated his first public remarks since leaving office to launching a withering preemptive strike on the idea of trading partial sanctions relief for partial denuclearization.
The North Koreans are after an interim agreement that would allow them to persist as a de facto nuclear-weapons state, Yun told me, and they likely feel “they’re not going to get a decent deal until Trump intervenes.” But “if you do summit-level talks and nothing else, it’s not going to work.”
Now that the Democrats have launched an impeachment inquiry into the president’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating the Bidens ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, North Korean officials (who are known to closely follow U.S. politics) may be calculating that they are in a stronger negotiating position, and that Trump, a “self-advertised dealmaker” without many actual deals in foreign affairs, will be interested in “a distraction” from his domestic troubles in the form of a nuclear accord, Yun noted.
But if the assessment in Pyongyang is indeed that Trump is desperate for a win and will scramble to cut a deal at the end of the year, it could prove a hugely consequential miscalculation. One of the downsides of highly personalized diplomacy is that when the person in question is debilitated, the diplomacy suffers.
The president is “up to his ears in subpoenas; he’s got the secretary of state, who’s on very wobbly ground. Anything he does with the North Koreans, unless it’s an enormous concession on their part … is going to be torn to shreds [in the U.S.] as drama, theater,” a North Korea watcher who has been involved in track-2 diplomacy told me on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue.
The North Korea watcher said it’s also possible that North Korea’s leaders, who would have been suspicious of any pact made with Washington, have drawn the opposite lesson from the political turmoil in the United States: that there’s no use in surrendering assets as part of an agreement with Trump that could collapse within months as a result of impeachment pressures or the 2020 election. In which case Pyongyang might see an opening in the next year, while the United States is paralyzed by “fratricidal warfare,” to further develop its nuclear-weapons arsenal. Impeachment, which Democrats plan to vote on by the end of the year, would thus serve as a death knell for the Trump administration’s diplomacy with North Korea.
“If the North Koreans do go back to testing early next year and we’re still bound up in this political fight, how are we going to respond?” the North Korea watcher asked. Once the North Koreans develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States and a hydrogen bomb they can mount on it, there will be “a massive change in the balance of power in the Pacific. Everything gets cut loose. It may not be 24 hours afterward, but boy, suddenly the world is very, very different.”