By Robert R. King
The relationship between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump has been surprisingly cordial and positive since March 2018, when Trump impulsively agreed to a summit with Kim. Since that time, however, the political results of their initial cordial relationship have been very limited. Little progress has been made on improving ties between the two countries, and there is no success on denuclearization or on lifting United Nations sanctions against North Korea.
President Trump has met with Kim Jong-un in two full-scale summits (Singapore in June 2018 and Hanoi in February 2019) and one friendly hand-holding stroll across the DMZ in June 2019, which gave the U.S. President the right to he is the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea. (Former President Bill Clinton was in Pyongyang in August 2009, and former President Jimmy Carter was there in June 1994, August 2010 and April 2011.) Periodically since the first Trump-Kim summit in June 2018, President Trump has verbally reaffirmed his “very, very good relationship” with Kim, and Trump famously said, Kim “wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. . . .We fell in love.”
But lovers can also fall out of love. A policy that is dependent on the personal relationship between the U.S. President and the North Korean leader could be upended quickly. Just as Trump has shown delight in singlehandedly reversing policies of his predecessor, his successor could just as quickly reverse the American president’s cordial relationship with the North Korean leader if it is based only on the personal relationship.
Furthermore, a change in policy does not even require a change in leadership as President Trump has shown with his erratic policy flip flops. Kim Jong-un certainly remembers the abrupt about-face from Trump’s UN General Assembly speech in September 2017 taunting Kim as “little rocket man” and threatening “fire and fury” against the North. A few months later Trump agreed to the summit in Singapore where the President “gushed with praise for North Korea’s dictator, even as he ignored the country’s human-rights abuses and scolded democratically elected allies.”
Trump is Trying Harder to Maintain the Relationship with Kim
Since the very public failure of the Hanoi Summit last February, the two leaders have not moved forward on their relationship or on the significant policy issues which divide them. Trump, however, has made a much more concerted effort for better ties than has his North Korean counterpart.
This is completely out of character for Trump. When personal relationships deteriorate, Trump usually is quick to denounce and defame former friends and allies. Think of his former attorney Michael Cohen, former chief political strategist Steve Bannon, and former Attorney General and first major campaign endorser Senator Jeff Sessions. Even friendships with important foreign leaders have deteriorated when minor differences irritate the U.S. President, such as the souring of his once flourishing friendship with French President Emmanuel Macron.
It is surprising in light of the lack of success in the effort to make progress on improving relations between the United States and North Korea that President Trump has been slow to criticize Kim. The U.S. President continues to make positive affirmations about the less-than-cooperative North Korean leader.
In June the two met briefly at Panmunjom on the North-South Korean border with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. This was during an official visit by President Trump to South Korea. The meeting was a photo-op, although the two leaders did agree in Panmunjom to resume negotiations. That agreement has failed.
A working-level meeting between U.S. and North Korean diplomats in Stockholm four months later in October was the first follow-up effort to revive negotiations and prepare for senior level meetings. The Stockholm talks failed. The U.S. delegation, headed by Senior Representative for North Korea Policy Steve Biegun, was prepared for substantive discussions. The senior North Korean diplomat, however, clearly was not authorized to negotiate. At the end of the discussions, the North Korean official called the talks “very bad and sickening” and said that the U.S. was unprepared to negotiate seriously.
President Trump periodically continues to emphasize his “great” personal relationship with Kim Jong-un, but he has personally done little more since devoting an hour or two to the brief photo-op with Kim at the DMZ in June. Since then, Chairman Kim has taken a hostile stance toward the United States. Most recently, in his seven-hour speech at the North Korean party’s Central Committee plenary meeting on December 31, Kim said North Korea would resume long-range missile tests and would unveil a new strategic weapon “in the near future.” Kim also said the North is no longer bound by the moratorium on missile testing. Although he did not announce the timing of new testing, he certainly opened that door. Kim also denounced U.S.-South Korean military cooperation, even though joint military training has been scaled back by Trump.
After the failure of the Hanoi Summit, Trump publicly down-played Kim Jong-un’s threatening behavior. On a state visit to Japan in May, he denied that North Korea had tested “ballistic” missiles or violated UN Security Council sanctions resolutions. This was totally opposite of the views of his own national security advisor, then John Bolton, and of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.
In December, a few weeks before delivering his marathon speech on December 31, Kim Jong-un threatened that he would send the United States a “Christmas present.” The North frequently takes provocative anti-American actions by conducting nuclear or missile tests on U.S. holidays. Just a week or so earlier, the North conducted a series of missile tests on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. President Trump did not respond with bluster or even a warning about the “Christmas present” threat. He tepidly expressed the hope that Kim would send a “beautiful vase” rather than a military provocation for Christmas.
Washington Urges Resumption of Talks, but North Says “No”
Even after Kim Jong-un’s threats in his December 31 speech, Trump made a point of sending friendly birthday greetings to the North Korean leader, whose birthday is January 8. South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong met with Trump in early January, and the President asked Chung to convey his birthday message to the North Korean leader. The message was also sent through regular Washington-Pyongyang communication channels.
Reflecting the current surly mood in Pyongyang, Kim Kye-gwan—former Deputy Foreign Minister, currently senior advisor to the North Korean Foreign Ministry, and a leading voice in U.S. relations for the last quarter century—brusquely noted that North Korea communicates directly with the United States, and does not need South Korea to deliver its mail.
Just a few days ago President Trump’s National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, said that Washington has reached out to Pyongyang indicating that it was prepared to resume discussions with the North. He noted that Christmas has come and gone without a hostile North Korean “Christmas present,” and he suggested that was a positive indication that the time was appropriate to resume talks. The North Korean response came quickly and publicly from Kim Kye-gwan: a birthday greeting is not a basis to resume discussions.
The former Deputy Foreign Minister went even further, stating that Kim Jong-un separates his “personal” friendly relationship with Trump from North Korean policy toward the United States. Regarding the North Korean leader’s personal relationship, Kim Kye-gwan said: “Although Chairman Kim Jong Un has good personal feelings about President Trump, they are, in the true sense of the word, ‘personal.’ We have been deceived by the United States, being caught in the dialogue with it for over one year and a half, and that was lost time for us.”
Impeachment and the Upcoming U.S. Election
Current events may be an important element causing the North to be more cautious about seeking to make progress with the United States at this time. The impeachment of the President and the upcoming U.S. Senate vote about whether to remove the President from office is a cause for uncertainty, even though removal of the President from office does not appear likely at this point. But more importantly, in less than ten months, the United States will hold its next presidential election. The outcome of that contest up in the air at this point.
North Koreans pride themselves on their awareness of U.S. politics and its implications for how the U.S. deals with North Korea. Pyongyang is wary of changes of leadership in the United States. The Clinton Administration made a last minute effort in 2000 effort to make progress with North Korea by sending then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang for a much publicized visit. No final agreement was reached, and the George W. Bush Administration was initially much more hostile to cooperation with the North.
At the end of the George W. Bush Administration a similar last minute effort involved U.S. agreement to provide food aid to the North, but when the Obama Administration assumed office, the North cancelled the agreements made with the previous administration. Near the end of a U.S. president’s term, Pyongyang tends to be very cautious about reaching significant new agreements with Washington.
These internal events in the United States have raised uncertainties for the North Korean leader. America watchers in North Korea are unlikely to fully grasp the nuances of the upcoming election or the potential for changes in policy toward North Korea. The result is that Kim Jong-un is likely to continue being very cautious about serious negotiations with Donald Trump. In light of the uncertain future, suspicion and caution about U.S. intentions will likely continue.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from the White House Photostream on flickr Creative Commons.