Trump's just not that into Kim

Though President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE announced in 2018 that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "fell in love," Trump’s appetite for dedicating the time and energy required to develop this relationship and advance efforts to denuclearize the North is likely quite limited.

This is not to suggest that Trump and Kim are heading for a messy breakup that stokes concerns in the market and elsewhere that a military conflict in Northeast Asia is looming on the horizon. 2019 will likely be relatively calm, albeit with occasional exchanges of testy rhetoric.      

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It does mean, however, that the new year will likely pass by without the U.S. making much progress in persuading Kim to give up his nuclear weapons and the development programs that support them, leaving these chronic threats firmly in place for the foreseeable future.     

Trump’s motivation to spend significant amounts of his own political capital on trying to ratchet up pressure on Kim is dampened by two main factors: his own dearth of patience and a comparative lack of focus on North Korea in the U.S. among Trump’s supporters and critics. 

The idea that Trump finds it challenging to concentrate for long periods of time on complex policy issues that require careful, discrete planning and coordination to address effectively is arguably one that even most of his allies — at least in private — would not dispute.

It is therefore not a stretch to say that the arduous process of negotiating with as wily an adversary as North Korea to tackle a task that will take years to complete — even assuming this is possible — is not a good fit for Trump’s personality or skill set.

Trump is still keen to have more high-profile summits with Kim. But he is probably far more interested in using these periodic meetings to create entertaining melodrama and show that he still has the situation under control than to resuscitate a stalled denuclearization push.

Trump’s sense of urgency and desire to put his shoulder to the wheel on North Korea are further weakened by the fact that his base appears largely uninterested in it, content to believe Trump’s narrative that he has eliminated the North Korean threat and they can now sleep well.

Moreover, neither Republicans nor Democrats said much about North Korea during campaigning for congressional midterm elections in November, and polls have shown (not surprisingly) that most voters on both the left and the right prioritized domestic issues over foreign policy.

So while many North Korea experts continue to warn that Kim is playing Trump for a fool and has no intention of abandoning his nuclear arsenal, there are few prominent voices outside D.C. think tanks and policy circles vigorously disputing Trump’s claim that he has brought Kim to heel.  

With no one about whom Trump cares or worries very much openly pushing him to go beyond what he’s already doing, and him having said he’s in no hurry to reach the denuclearization finish line (but still claiming to be moving toward it), Kim likely feels he’s in a pretty comfortable spot.

That said, North Korea still finds it frustrating and costly to circumvent U.S.-led sanctions, and it will not be easy for Kim to resist temptations to do what North Korea often does when it feels it is not getting enough attention or concessions from the U.S. or other countries — act up and out. 

On balance, however, the status quo appears to be working quite well for Kim as it provides him time and room to continue to rebuild diplomatic and economic ties with South Korea, China and many other countries, work to erode support for sanctions and quietly enhance his military capabilities.

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Given this, Kim is unlikely to resume missile test launches in the near term or do something similarly inflammatory that risks prompting Trump to lash out, which could in turn trigger a new round of intense sabre rattling that derails constructive U.S.-North Korea engagement.

The risks of a breakdown in talks in 2019 between Washington and Pyongyang will rise somewhat if fallout from the Mueller investigation or another major domestic political threat boosts incentives for Trump to act tougher abroad to deflect attention away from his troubles at home. 

Looking down the road a bit farther, 2020 might prove a tricky year for both sides to navigate as Trump kicks his reelection campaign into high gear, making him more sensitive and vulnerable to accusations from detractors that his North Korea policy has failed.

If Kim calculates that Trump’s desire to keep engagement on an even keel in a critical election year makes him more open to blackmail, this would likewise put their love to the test.    

Scott Seaman is the Asia director for the Eurasia Group.