How Kim Has Played Trump

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Photo: Youtube screengrab

ATLANTA – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is eager to hold a second summit with US President Donald Trump. Since their first meeting in Singapore in June, Kim has consistently outmaneuvered his counterpart. Trump may still fancy himself a world-class dealmaker, but the truth is that Kim – like Russian President Vladimir Putin – has got Trump’s number.

Kim’s bonhomie (real or feigned) and promises of denuclearization have muted Trump’s threats, brought the South Korean government closer to his side, and eroded international sanctions against his regime. Kim has accomplished all of this without diminishing his regime’s nuclear capacity, and he appears to have continued ballistic-missile development at 16 hidden sites. Having gone from nuclear-armed pariah to presidential negotiating partner, it is little wonder that Kim would want a second summit to consolidate his newfound international legitimacy and position in the global limelight.

Kim has already outdone his forebears. His father and grandfather both tried and failed to create a high-level channel to the US government. The relationship that Kim has forged with Trump is thus an historic and personal success. After six reclusive years in power, the 35-year-old scion of North Korea’s dynastic regime has made a remarkable debut on the world stage, both managing an erratic, ego-driven president and setting the terms of the negotiations.

By contrast, the Trump administration has little to show for its efforts. Since the Singapore summit, US officials have reportedly been pushing the Kim regime to lay out a path to denuclearization. But the North Koreans have refused to turn over even the most basic facts about their arsenal. This stonewalling suggests that Kim has read Trump well. As Trump himself contends, “I am the only one that matters.”

Trump’s narcissism, hunger for the spotlight, and desperation to match former President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize are all that Kim needs to know about the man. The only question is how far Trump will go to secure something that he can hawk as an unprecedented deal with North Korea. By agreeing to another summit while slow-rolling preliminary talks, Kim is reconnoitering Trump’s bottom line.

Recall that, as its up-front price for serious denuclearization talks, the North initially pushed for diplomatic steps, such as a treaty to end to the Korean War. In Singapore, Trump promised to do just that, surprising American allies and US officials alike. Then, in talks last month with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Kim upped the ante by also calling for an end to the international sanctions against his regime. No doubt, Kim is hoping that Trump’s impulsiveness will lead him to fold. This month, Kim’s foreign ministry issued a public threat that North Korea could restart its weapons program if the US does not soften its position on sanctions.

As Pompeo pursues further talks in Pyongyang this month, Kim will surely hold his ground. Since declaring in June that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat”, Trump has backpedaled on virtually all of his demands, dropped his draconian deadlines, and failed even to hint that Kim’s foot-dragging is a cause for concern. In October, Pompeo made no headway toward defining even the basic vocabulary of a future agreement. According to officials who are familiar with the talks, on at least two occasions, the North Koreans asked him if he wanted to step out and call his boss. As matters stand, the Kim regime and the US have yet to agree on the definition of terms such as “denuclearization,” “verifiable,” and “irreversible.”

To be sure, playing Trump and reneging on promised steps toward denuclearization has its risks. In May, Trump temporarily canceled the Singapore meeting in response to North Korean statements, and he did the same with talks between Pompeo and the North Koreans in August. There is no guarantee that he will not repeat that gambit.

And yet, even if he does, Kim’s own penchant for drama – from firing missiles over Japan to carrying out frequent purges at home – suggests that he knows how to command the stage and bring Trump to the table. Moreover, his ego-stroking personal letters to Trump show that he has a good fix on the president’s psyche. So far, he has proved to be highly effective at keeping the bromance alive, and the forthcoming summit on track.

Regardless of when the second summit occurs, the North Korean regime will continue to reap dividends at America’s expense in the meantime. Trump’s cancellation of two major US-South Korean joint military exercises already has commanders from both countries worried about their military readiness. And international support for economic sanctions – particularly on the part of China and Russia – has been steadily eroding since even before the Singapore summit.

With a fourth 2018 summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in now in the works, it is clear that Moon’s political future is tied to rapprochement. During his October trip to Europe, Moon lobbied hard for the easing of sanctions, reflecting his government’s desire to engage, not embargo, the North.

It is time for the self-described master of the “art of the deal” to admit that he doesn’t have one. Trump prefers hype to the hard work of hammering out arms-control agreements, so controlling his craving for the spotlight will not be easy. Nonetheless, when it comes to Kim, a bit of 54-year-old wisdom from Barry Goldwater, another outsider-turned-Republican Party icon, still applies: “The only summit meeting that can succeed is the one that doesn’t take place.”

Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chief of Station in Asia, and the CIA’s Director of Public Affairs. John Walcott has covered foreign policy and national security for NewsweekThe Wall Street Journal, and other publications, and is an adjunct professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
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