And so they meet again. President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the ruler of North Korea, are expected to gather this week in Hanoi, Vietnam, for a second round of nuclear negotiations. Mr. Kim bested Mr. Trump at their first meeting in Singapore in June last year. And he is poised to do so again.
The reason is simple: He has a strategy and the Americans do not. The United States hopes to somehow keep the world safe from North Korea. But Mr. Kim has an actual plan to make the world safe for North Korea.
Mr. Kim’s plan — the same as his father’s and grandfather’s, and one breathtakingly revisionist — is nothing less than unconditional reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the control of his government in Pyongyang. Nuclear weapons are indispensable to achieving his vision. And rational actors do not bargain away their core interests; only fools or traitors do.
For a time, the Trump team’s counter-proliferation policy — its “maximum pressure” campaign of economic strangulation by way of sanctions — seemed to pose a much more serious threat to Pyongyang’s nuclear quest than did previous American administrations. North Korea’s distorted economy, which is highly dependent on imports of food and energy, as well as foreign subsidies, would not be able to withstand such measures indefinitely, the thinking went. If it was squeezed enough, North Korea’s defense industry would suffer, too, and Mr. Kim’s threat to target the United States would never be fully realized.
But then Mr. Kim went on the counteroffensive.
In his 2018 New Year’s address, he declared that “the power and reliability” of North Korea’s nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles had “already been proved to the full.” He ordered testing to stop and mass production to start. At the same time, he announced that he was ready for dialogue with “compatriots” from South Korea “if they sincerely wish” for “national concord and unity.”
This was a deft gambit. It allowed the new South Korean government to jump back into conciliatory engagement — which President Moon Jae-in did almost instantly — and to help cultivate the Americans’ interest in dialogue with Mr. Kim. The promised halt in testing was taken as a good-will gesture; it reduced international pressure. All the while, North Korea quietly pushed ahead with its nuclear and missiles programs.
In the lead-up to the Singapore meeting, North Korea masterfully probed for its adversary’s weaknesses. And it learned that Mr. Trump, for all his fire-and-fury rhetoric, was not just interested in a deal, but hungry for one.
The critical test came in late May 2018, when North Korean state media ran a scathing statement by a vice minister of foreign affairs that slammed John Bolton, the American national security adviser, (for “reckless remarks”) and mocked Vice President Mike Pence (“what a political dummy he is”). It warned: “We can also make the United States taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined up to now.” The next day, Mr. Trump suspended preparations for the summit — only to quickly order them resumed. The North Koreans knew then they had him hooked.
The Singapore summit was held the following month. No momentous decisions emerged from it, at least so far as the public is aware. But on every visible point of contention, North Korea came out ahead. And Mr. Trump praised Mr. Kim while cutting back on military readiness drills that American and South Korean troops have been carrying out together for six decades.
As the second Trump-Kim meeting approaches, North Korea looks to have the upper hand again.
Mr. Kim has been playing hardball. If the United States “persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic,” he warned in his New Year’s address last month, “we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.”
Team Trump, for its part, is painfully understaffed. The Senate has yet to confirm an assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific. Stephen Biegun, the special representative for North Korea, is widely respected, but has been working the file for just six months. The North Korean side has brushed off American entreaties both for a nuclear inventory and for setting up substantive working groups ahead of the summit in Hanoi. All of that is to its advantage.
If big decisions are made this week — meaning: if Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump are left alone in a room — the North Koreans may well game the “dotard,” as the North Korean ruler has called the American president. And if no big decisions are reached, North Korea will still win, because it will keep forging ahead with its nuclear and missile-production programs.
So here’s what to watch out for:
- One-sided concessions. North Korean negotiators are old hands at this one. One particular something-for-nothing deal they may ask for is being rewarded for halting tests — which they no longer need to conduct.
- False hopes for false choices. The American side seems to think it can sell North Korea on abandoning its nuclear weaponry in exchange for economic modernization. (This was the pitch in the Destiny Pictures video that Mr. Trump made Mr. Kim watch in Singapore.) The North Korean side may pretend to be interested and claim that no modernization can happen until sanctions are lifted. In reality, Pyongyang has its eyes on both the weapons and the growth; that’s what Mr. Kim’s “byungjin,” or simultaneous advance, policy is all about. Never mind that he has talked the talk of caring more about economics in recent times; North Korea is still a perpetual war economy. Market development there would only mean a bigger nuclear threat, and faster.
- The “denuclearization” trap. One of the United States’ main blunders in Singapore was to sign a joint statement to, among other things, “promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” American negotiators apparently took this to mean the denuclearization of North Korea, when for North Korea, it means getting South Korea out from under America’s nuclear umbrella. Mr. Kim is likely to stall with this cunning phraseology and constructive ambiguity again.
- An illusory peace declaration. The rumor in Washington is that the United States is now willing to accede to longstanding North Korean demands for a “peace declaration” that would formally end the Korean War. (Fighting stopped in 1953, but only by a cease-fire agreement.) Whatever such a proclamation might mean under international law, it would marginalize and could endanger South Korea. With a signed declaration in hand, the Kim government would demand, naturally, the departure of American forces from the Korean Peninsula and the scrapping of the United States-South Korean defense alliance.
The correct position on this question is, instead, that American forces should remain in the peninsula for as long as the United States and South Korea agree that such a presence is in their respective security interests, peace proclamation or not.
And the correct position overall is for the United States to resume a policy of maximum pressure worthy of the name. North Korea’s trade with China, by far its most important economic partner, reportedly dropped by nearly 60 percent between January and September of last year. The government in Pyongyang is forced to spend down strategic reserves. A suffocation campaign should be enforced ruthlessly.
In its quest to make the world safe for itself, the North Korean government uses diplomacy — granted, a diplomacy of bared fangs and broken promises — to consolidate gains, extract concessions or provoke new crises. At the moment, it seems to be in “consolidate” and “extract” mode. But it could shift gears to “crisis” as soon as that seems beneficial. Maybe or maybe not this week in Hanoi, but certainly at a time and place of Mr. Kim’s choosing.
Nicholas Eberstadt is a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute.