What has been most distinctive about his North Korean diplomacy is how President Trump 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.
This weekend, U.S. and North Korean officials met in Sweden to revive nuclear negotiations, a development that barely registered amid the impeachment frenzy in the United States. 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. 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.”
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.
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, notes Joseph Yun, who served as Trump’s North Korea envoy at the State Department until 2018. 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.
It’s also possible that North Korea’s leaders 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.