President Trump smiled broadly last week when a reporter asked whether he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to get North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up nuclear arms.
“Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it,” the president said, adding, “The prize I want is victory for the world.”
Modesty real or feigned aside, for weeks Trump has been clear that he views the scheduled June 12 summit with Kim as potentially a crowning moment — both a validation of his disruptive, idiosyncratic approach to world affairs and a rejoinder to the investigations and controversies that engulf his presidency.
Word of North Korea’s threat late Tuesday to cancel the summit has cooled some of that heady talk, leaving the president and his spokeswoman sounding publicly ambivalent Wednesday about whether the meeting comes off at all.
Kim’s government said it would call off the meeting “if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment.” Its statement cited comments by Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, that compared the administration’s strategy with North Korea to the George W. Bush administration’s policy toward Libya, which agreed to give up a more primitive nuclear program in 2003. Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi was toppled and executed by Western-backed rebels several years later, serving as a cautionary tale to Kim.
Trump remained publicly sanguine. “We’ll see what happens,” he told reporters at the White House on Wednesday, adding that he had not heard anything official from North Korea.
Experts on North Korea say that the latest setback, even if it proves to be a mere speed bump, should serve as a reminder that achieving any deal with North Korea will not come without obstacles, false starts and repeated tests from an unpredictable government known to toy with its foes.
Some warn that Trump’s exuberance for striking the ultimate deal already has given Kim added leverage.
“Kim assumes rightly that Trump is more eager than he for a meeting,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “I would say Kim has Trump on a short leash right now.”
Administration officials have insisted since March, when Trump abruptly agreed to a summit, that they are viewing Kim’s overtures with deep skepticism.
“We don’t want to get too carried away with optimism,” a senior official said in an interview last month. Trump “will walk if he smells the North Koreans using their musty old playbook.”
Indeed, the president has said more than once that he would walk away from the negotiating table if things were not going well. He has stuck to a demand that North Korea will not accept, in the view of many experts: its complete denuclearization. To Kim and his government, its nuclear arsenal is crucial not only to the nation’s power but to its continued existence.
It’s unclear whether Kim would accept something short of unilateral disarmament — or whether Trump would. But North Korea has put the question front and center, after days in which Trump’s optimistic pronouncements had obscured the two leaders’ fundamental divide.
Trump’s celebratory mood over a potential breakthrough with North Korea has been a sharp departure from his prior taunts of Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and his threats to Pyongyang of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Earlier this month Trump talked excitedly about holding the summit in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea because “if things work out, there’s a great celebration to be had on the site.” His advisors, who recognize that even a successful summit would not yield the immediate results Trump envisioned, prevailed on him to meet instead in Singapore, a neutral city-state in southeast Asia.
Last week, when Trump greeted three Americans released from Kim’s prisons, he raved that the North Korean dictator “was really excellent to the men.” During a rally in Indiana that night he waxed optimistic about what more would be achieved — “a great deal for the world, for North Korea, for South Korea, for Japan, for China.”
Trump also used the rally to defend his impulsive approach to foreign policy, and to criticize American reporters, telling the crowd to recall “the fake news, when they were saying, ‘He’s going to get us into a nuclear war.’”
“You know what gets you into nuclear wars and you know what gets you into other wars?” Trump said. “Weakness.”
On Saturday, Trump used Twitter to praise North Korea’s announcement that it would dismantle a nuclear test site, calling it “a very smart and gracious gesture!”
Analysts, while recognizing the symbolic importance of the announcement by Kim’s government, were less impressed with the substance. North Korea had already promised last month to dismantle the site, one of many, when Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Trump’s optimism suits another purpose. He and his allies have invoked his high-stakes negotiations with North Korea — and what they saw as the prospects for a major achievement — as a shield against his domestic problems, especially the special counsel’s investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election and whether he sought to obstruct the investigation.
“There was no Collusion (it is a Hoax) and there is no Obstruction of Justice (that is a setup & trap),” Trump tweeted this month. “What there is is Negotiations going on with North Korea over Nuclear War, Negotiations going on with China over Trade Deficits, Negotiations on NAFTA, and much more. Witch Hunt!”
Trump’s quick agreement in March to accept Kim’s invitation to meet face to face surprised many world leaders and security experts, not only because Trump warned for his first year in office that diplomacy with Kim was a waste of time but also because Trump did not seem to have demanded concessions before sitting down with him.
“Since then, it’s been Kim calling the shots for the show,” said Lee, the Korean studies scholar at Tufts.
Lee called Kim’s subsequent promises to freeze nuclear and missile tests a trap, designed to win North Korea the legitimacy it has long craved without giving anything up in the long term.
“It’s a bit like an outlaw, a notorious criminal, telling the world, ‘I’m not going to commit crimes for the time being,’ and then being wined and dined by world leaders,” he said.
Michael J. Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he does not believe Trump has lost leverage with Kim through his exuberance, “but he has made allies like Japan very nervous about how much he might give away” in negotiations.
Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Trump is hardly the only one excited by North Korea’s “smile diplomacy” — from its participation in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, through the recent series of negotiations with South Korea and the release of the three Americans.
“A lot of people were caught up in this, ‘Wow, things could be really different,’” Cheng said. “Everyone would be well served taking a step back.”
He added, referring to the suspected chemical attack that killed Kim’s half-brother in Malaysia last year, “You are still dealing with Kim Jong Un, the man who authorized the killing of his brother at Kuala Lumpur airport.”