Magazine Article - Vanity Fair

Not Exactly the “A-Team”: Is Trump Getting Played by Kim Jong Un?

| Mar. 09, 2018

With no ambassador, few experts at State, and a team of West Wing advisers who only know “ ‘shoot’ or ‘don’t shoot,’ ” can Trump really change the game with North Korea?

At 5 p.m. on Thursday evening, Donald Trump popped into the White House briefing room and sent the assembled press into a frenzy. There would be a “major” announcement on a “big subject,” Trump teased. Shortly after, it was revealed that Trump had accepted an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, delivered to the White House via South Korean envoys, to discuss Kim’s nuclear program. “Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze,” Trump tweeted later Thursday night. “Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”

The stunning announcement, which breaks with decades of foreign policy in the region, was greeted by the diplomatic community with cautious optimism, but also raised more questions than it answered. What does Kim want from talks with Trump? Is the United States getting played by North Korea? And how might Trump succeed where so many other presidents have failed? Here’s what some of the most experienced foreign-policy hands and North Korea experts are saying about the possibility of detente.

Could Trump’s impulsivity be an asset?

Thursday’s news was completely unplanned. Just hours before Trump alerted the press to an impending announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dismissed the notion that the U.S. and North Korea were anywhere near any kinds of talks. “We’re a long way from negotiations. We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it,” Tillerson said from Ethiopia. “I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet, ourselves, face-to-face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.”

By the following day, Tillerson had changed his tune, telling reporters that the president’s decision was “not a surprise” at all. The optics of the announcement, however, suggest otherwise. No U.S. officials spoke during the bizarre, seemingly impromptu presser, which was held in the dark, by South Korean national security advisor Chung Eui-Yong, in the middle of the White House driveway. According to The New York Times, the events leading up to the announcement were even more chaotic:

Mr. Trump was not scheduled to meet Mr. Chung until Friday, but when he heard that the envoy was in the West Wing seeing other officials, the president summoned him to the Oval Office, according to a senior administration official.

Mr. Trump, the official said, then asked Mr. Chung to tell him about his meeting with Mr. Kim. When Mr. Chung said that the North Korean leader had expressed a desire to meet Mr. Trump, the president immediately said he would do it, and directed Mr. Chung to announce it to the White House press corps.

White House officials were “dazed,” as were the foreign-policy experts I spoke with. “In a classic negotiation, the summit is the last piece, not the first piece, and so in terms of procedure, this is very unusual,” a former senior U.S. official told me. And already, there are signs that the White House may be walking back Trump’s tweet. When asked Friday about the arrangement and whether it would be anything more than a “photo-op” that benefits Kim, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded that Trump “will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea.”

Still, there are indications that Trump’s impulsivity could work to his benefit. “You can see why [agreeing to a meeting] is attractive to Trump because it makes him swashbuckling,” the former official said. “It makes him creative, he is throwing out the playbook and doing something new.” That could be an asset, given that three successive U.S. administrations have failed to thwart three successive generations of Kims. That “doesn’t mean that the old rules simply go away,” the senior official cautioned. “It means that what he has done is that he has given away the most important deliverable before he starts.” But it also means that the U.S. may have a once-in-a-generation chance to end the stalemate on the Korean peninsula—if the Trump administration can figure out what it, and Kim, really want.

What does Kim want?

In exchange for Trump agreeing to meet Kim, the South Korean envoys said that North Korea would consider denuclearization, agree to cease weapons testing (for now), and not react to planned U.S.-South Korea military exercises set to begin this spring. But it is unclear what the North Korean regime is seeking in exchange, or even what these stipulations entail. “Usually what happens when you go into these negotiations is there is enormous preparation that takes place,” the former U.S. official told me. “One of the dangers that traditional diplomats will see here, and I am among them, is if you are not systematic in the way that you plan, then when the principles get together, what they agree to can be both unpredictable—that is not necessarily bad—but then the understanding that they come to, about what the next steps are, can be very murky or even contradictory.”

The entire negotiation, of course, hinges on what North Korea means by “considering” denuclearization. And experts doubt that Kim is really saying what Trump wants to hear. “Here is the big gamble that the president is making: Is Kim really likely to give up his nuclear weapons?” said Nicholas Burns, who served in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. “The answer is no. It would not be rational for him to give up his nuclear weapons. It is the only card he has.” For years, North Korea has worked to build a nuclear weapon capable of striking the United States for one specific reason: to have a credible deterrent against invasion. “He knows what happened to Qaddafi and he knows what happened to Saddam Hussein when they gave up their weapons of mass destruction,” Burns continued. “They lost their lives, and regimes, and families.”

The prospect of a Trump-Kim summit suggests that North Korea’s calculus has changed. But the total lack of context and timeframe means that the Trump administration is in the dark. “What I imagine they meant is that at some point in the process of talks they will be willing to discuss denuclearization. That could be months from now, but that could also be a year from now,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America think tank who has engaged North Korean officials at unofficial discussions. And the North has proven slippery before. “At the end of the process, that doesn’t guarantee that they will follow through with that promise. So what I expect is a long, arduous process of talks ahead that will have bumps and setbacks.”

Is Kim playing Trump?

Diplomats worry that with no U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and the surprise resignation of the State Department’s chief North Korea negotiator last week, the Trump administration is badly under-resourced to enter into talks with Kim. Others fear that the White House has already been outplayed. “In my conversations with North Korean officials over the past two years, I have been struck with how clear they are about their strategy and the outcomes that they would like to see,” DiMaggio said. “It doesn’t surprise me that after they have been able to declare that they have achieved a great deal of progress in their nuclear program, that they are now willing and eager to come to the table, because after all, they have strengthened their negotiating position.”

Kim’s defiance of international norms could already be perceived as having paid dividends. “A meeting with the leader of the free world, the United States, has been a long-standing goal of the North Korean leadership. In fact, this was raised to me when I visited Pyongyang last year,” DiMaggio told me. “The problem is that the North Koreans haven’t delivered anything concrete yet, but Trump has already handed them what many would call a major concession. I think the administration needs to move quickly to get ahead of this process because right now, it is purely reacting and not leading.”

Burns, the former ambassador, echoed the sentiment. “The North Koreans have wanted this summit meeting since the 1950s. Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong II, and now Kim Jong Un have all wanted it, but we have never given them it,” Burns told me. “I am not trying to be unduly critical of the president, but this seems like a rash decision that he made late yesterday afternoon, without a lot of consultation with his senior team, and that is worrisome. The only American who has ever met [Kim] is Dennis Rodman . . . so you haven’t sized him up. Is he serious? Is he trying to play us? You have to ask all those questions. This is the big leagues in terms of degree of difficulty.”

From the outside, it certainly seems as though Kim has been laying the groundwork for this moment. Sources I spoke with highlighted Kim’s actions over the past several months—his overtures to the South Koreans, the D.P.R.K.’s participation in the Winter Olympics, and the attendance of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, at the games—as evidence of a broader strategy. On the U.S. side, meanwhile, “I think you would be hard-pressed to say with any certainty what exactly is the U.S. strategy toward North Korea,” DiMaggio said. “And that is a problem that needs to be fixed right away.”

Traditionally, the White House would call upon the vast resources of the State Department to provide expertise and analysis. Under Trump, however, the U.S. government has hemorrhaged veteran diplomats, relying instead on a small circle of West Wing advisers—including the president’s inexperienced son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to conduct foreign policy. “You have no ambassador there. You now have no one who is in a senior position overseeing North Korea policy at the State Department. And your policy process is largely dominated by people whose options are ‘shoot or don’t shoot,’ ” worried Brett Bruen, a former foreign-service officer. “And that is not going to help you going into negotiations with Kim Jong Un, where we have to come up with a solution that involves the great work of diplomacy, and you’ve got no one on your bench who is ready to come off to play at that level.”

“Don’t forget,” Bruen added, “the North Koreans will have spent extraordinary amounts of time—because this is the most important issue in their national interests—to come up with proposals that will optimize a solution for them.” The Trump administration is playing catch-up.

Will this time be different?

The United States has been here before, only for North Korea to scuttle negotiations over denuclearization. Most recently, near the end of Bill Clinton’s administration, Secretary of State Madeline Albright went to North Korea to plan a presidential visit, only for the effort to be derailed when Kim Jong Il would not agree to a nuclear-missile deal prior to meeting with Clinton.

To avoid another disappointment, experts say it will be critical that both governments begin talks at a lower level. “I actually think a good next step would be a meeting between Secretary Tillerson and the foreign minister of North Korea, Ri Yong-ho, to set the groundwork for what is to come,” DiMaggio said. “It would also give strong indication that the diplomats are going to be leading this process.” In the meantime, Trump should stay off Twitter. “What we need to do now is find a way to soundproof this process from President Trump’s tendency to tweet and rant,” DiMaggio added. “My emphasis is let the diplomats, let the professionals handle this.”

Of course, with a depleted State Department and key ambassadorships vacant, there is a question of whether the Trump administration is actually equipped to handle high-level negotiations with the North Koreans. “I think the obvious disconnect between the White House and State on this is indicative of many things,” a current State Department staffer, who previously worked on the Korea desk, told me. “The challenges of putting this together, without many experienced Korean hands still on the inside seem insurmountable to me right now.”

Trump, too, is a wild card. “No one is really sure whether the team around Trump is the A-team on these issues. But even if it is the C-team, those people should meet with their counterparts to prepare the way for the meeting,” the former senior U.S. official told me. “That doesn’t seem to be the approach that Trump wants to take because I think—I am guessing now—he thinks that having the ability to cut a deal is his strength, rather than being hemmed in by a lot of detail.”

Much has been made of Trump’s madman theory of North Korea: his taunting of Kim as “little rocket man” and raging about unleashing “fire and fury” on the regime. On Twitter, numerous analysts grudgingly acknowledged the possibility that Trump’s unpredictability had established the credible threat of nuclear war necessary to force Kim’s hand. On cable news, Trump’s allies credited Tillerson’s “maximum pressure” campaign—a combination of crippling economic sanctions and isolation on the world stage—for bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table.

DiMaggio argues it’s not that simple. “I think the ramped up pressure, including the tougher sanctions, played a part in these latest developments, but there were other important factors, too. Chief among them is the progress North Korea has made, the remarkable progress North Korea has made in its nuclear program,” DiMaggio said. “They have changed the strategic calculus with the advancement they have made, and at the same time, they have strengthened their negotiating position. To just say the maximum-pressure strategy made this happen, I think is a big mistake . . . I would urge caution in giving the maximum-pressure policy too much credit.”

Why this could be a good thing

Nearly everyone I spoke with said they welcomed the possibility of a Trump-Kim summit, even if Trump’s approach to North Korea has been unconventional. “It is a positive that Trump and Kim are returning to diplomacy and away from war—at least for a couple of months,” Burns said. “I always felt that we had to try negotiations first before we decided to go to war. This is good. And you know, maybe they will create a climate and slowly, over time, the threat can be reduced. That is the positive scenario.”

Whatever the United States has done in the past, after all, clearly hasn’t been successful. “Don’t forget that the way that I am talking about this, which is the traditional diplomats’ approach, is something that has been tried for the last 30 years and hasn’t worked,” the former U.S. official told me. “So if you’re Trump it would be logical for him to assume, ‘Well, why would I set it up the traditional way that hasn’t worked?’ And there is no real, good answer to that.”

There are fears that the talks, if they fall apart or go poorly, could set the relationship even further back. “Having done this, at such a high-level, what are you left with? What is the option? And does it drive it back toward a war-footing?” asked Burns. But as a former career-foreign-service officer told me, the “worst case scenario” is hardly different than the status quo: the meeting “achieves nothing, Kim Jong Un continues to test and develop, and the U.S. looks foolish.” And we are back to square one.

Abigail Tracy is a staff news writer for the Hive covering Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Not Exactly the “A-Team”: Is Trump Getting Played by Kim Jong Un?.” Vanity Fair, March 9, 2018.