Falling “in love”

Always there was Trump, whose mind seemed as difficult to fathom as that of Kim Jong-un. Having threatened to inflict “fire and fury” on North Korea in 2017 if the North fired a long-range missile at the U.S., he now cited those “beautiful letters ... great letters” that Kim had written as the two “fell in love”.43

At the UN General Assembly in September 2018, a year after denouncing Kim in the same forum as “rocket man”, Trump said that sanctions would remain in place until North Korea gave up its nukes and missiles.44 In fact, the US and North Korea were following two-track policies in which Trump and Kim wooed each other with kind words and flattery while the US stuck to its demands for an end to North Korea’s nuclear programme and the North said it would do nothing without “corresponding measures”, including an end of sanctions.

It was far from clear, however, where or how or even whether the two tracks would converge, much less achieve their goals. Kim at this stage seemed to harbour more distrust for Pompeo than for Bolton, despite having hosted Pompeo at a lavish luncheon in Pyongyang as recently as October 2018. Humiliated by Trump’s walkout from the meeting in Hanoi on February 28, 2019, Kim held Pompeo, not Bolton, responsible for the debacle.

Kwon Jong-gun, director-general for American affairs at the North’s Foreign Ministry, in words carried in English by KCNA, said he was “afraid, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled”. If talks with the United States were to resume, said Kwon, “I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but other [sic] person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us”. Kim, signalling that he was ready to return to testing missiles, and possibly warheads, pointedly witnessed the firing of a new tactical weapon — though probably not a missile.4,5

As if to show he had other friends to turn to, Kim in April 2019 played the Russian card, meeting President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok for their first summit. In more than three hours of conversation, Putin said that they had discussed “what should be done to improve the situation”; and Kim said, they had “a very fruitful exchange” about ways to achieve “a peaceful settlement”.41’ Before returning to Moscow, Putin called for “international security guarantees” for the North in which Russia would participate. “It’s unlikely that any agreements between two countries will be enough”, he said, suggesting a revival of the dormant six-party talks that included China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas, as well as the United States.47

Trump said he would be glad to see Kim for a third summit but insisted he still give up his nuclear programme. Some analysts believed that Trump, first by threatening North Korea and then by pursuing a diplomatic tack, might be getting somewhere. “First you soften them, then you deal with them”, said David Ignatius, The Washington Post columnist and author, explaining Trump’s foreign policy modus operandi in a lecture at Princeton University in October 2018. “We begin to see what a new deal would look like. ... The outlines are beginning to emerge”.48 The outlines, however, were blurred. By flattering Kim, Trump believed that Kim would have to come to terms while Kim, pursuing a similar strategy, played on Trump’s ego in order to wring concessions without “denuclearisation”.

Both played the role in their rendezvous on the North-South line at Panmun-jom. The overriding sense was that the meeting, an extended photo-op, represented the aspiration if not the inspiration for a lasting deal. “It is very symbolic”, said Joseph Yun, the former US envoy to North Korea, on duty as global affairs analyst for CNN at Imjin Gak, a park and amusement area south of the DMZ. “At a minimum the meeting has to kick off a major process, and if it doesn’t, I will be very disappointed”.49 Yun’s successor, Stephen Biegun, was with Trump as he talked of setting up “new teams” to discuss a real deal.

Whatever happened, for Trump the meeting with Kim in the DMZ was a moment of glory, a success that he could always claim even if the North never came to terms on denuclearisation. “That was very quick notice, and I want to thank you”, he told Kim after shaking hands. “We met and we liked each other from day one, and that was very important”.50

As for the failure to come to terms with Kim, Trump found a scapegoat in National Security Adviser Bolton, whom he dismissed on September 10, 2019. “We were set back very badly”, he said, “when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model”, in which the late Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi had given up his nascent nuclear programme in 2003 without ever making a warhead. ’1 The great flaw in the Libyan example, as North Koreans noted, was that NATO-backed rebels deposed and killed Gaddafi eight years later.52 North Korea, though, still had to contend with Pompeo, whom the North’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho dubbed the “poisonous plant of American diplomacy”.55 Trump might see Kim as a friend to meet again, but the inescapable sense was that North Korea would remain nuclear-armed in defiance of promises of economic blessings and an end to sanctions as rewards for giving up its nuclear programme.

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