Stalled North Korea talks test Trump as dealmaker


President Trump is facing skepticism from inside and outside the administration about his belief that personal relationships and presidential negotiations are the key to resolving long-running U.S. foreign policy quagmires.

That tenet of his presidency came under renewed scrutiny recently when the White House announced it has started planning a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

{mosads}Little progress on the nuclear weapons issue has been made since the initial summit in June. But much like that first meeting, Trump thinks he can negotiate a breakthrough if he gets in a room with Kim, with whom he has described having a warm relationship.

“I think what Trump sees is that he alone can make progress with North Korea,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA division chief for Korea who is now a senior research fellow at the con-servative Heritage Foundation. “He has repeatedly touted his good relationship with Kim, though this has led to achieving no U.S. objective yet.

“And even when he blames China for stiffening North Korea’s backbone … he continues to tout his personal relationship with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, though this also has not achieved any U.S. objectives.”

Trump, the erstwhile businessman and “Art of the Deal” author, has sold himself as a master dealmaker, able to bend negotiations with the force of his personality. It’s an approach he has taken on foreign policy issues ranging from trade talks to bilateral relations with Russia.

That style also defined how he tackled efforts to get North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons.

He went ahead with a history-making summit with Kim in Singapore despite unresolved lower-level issues. Regional experts and officials warned that jumping straight to a high-level, face-to-face meeting would amount to a win for Pyongyang.

After critics derided Trump for making unilateral concessions without a detailed commitment from Kim to denuclearize, the president hailed the summit as a success. On Twitter, Trump proclaimed that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was tapped in Singapore to lead further North Korea ne-gotiations, has struggled to make progress.

The United States wants North Korea to provide a complete inventory of its nuclear weapons and facilities. But before it will do that, Pyongyang wants a joint peace declaration to end the Korean War, which is technically ongoing.

Trump last month canceled Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea, where he was expected to attempt to reinvigorate the talks and introduce the new U.S. special envoy, Stephen Biegun, who most recently worked as Ford Motor Co.’s vice president of international governmental affairs.

Since then, North Korea has reaffirmed to South Korea its summit pledge on complete denu-clearization of the peninsula. And in what the Trump administration is interpreting as a sign of goodwill, Kim did not include intercontinental ballistic missiles in the country’s annual Founda-tion Day parade.

Kim later sent Trump a letter requesting a second summit. The White House on Monday said a follow-up meeting between the two leaders is in the works.

Pompeo’s trip was canceled after the administration received a letter from Kim Yong Chol, former head of the country’s spy agency who has been leading talks for North Korea. The letter is said to have been belligerent enough to convince Trump that Pompeo’s trip would not be worth it.

Andy Keiser, a principal at the lobbying firm Navigators Global who worked on the Trump tran-sition team’s national security section, said the administration views Kim Yong Chol as a hard-liner playing games with the talks.

In that regard, Keiser argued, it makes sense to cut out middlemen like Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol and have Trump talk directly with Kim Jong Un.

“I think they’re very clearly sending a message that, ‘You’ve appointed this guy to deal with who I’ve appointed, Secretary Pompeo, and that line of communication is not acceptable to us and not working,’” Keiser said. “ ‘We’re not going to dink around with this guy who doesn’t ap-pear to be interested in coming to a solution when you say that you are, Chairman Kim.’ ”

But there are those in the administration who are dubious of whether a top-down approach will yield the desired results. National security adviser John Bolton, in particular, is doubtful North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons voluntarily.

Hours before the White House announced it was planning a second summit, Bolton voiced his reservations about denuclearization.

“The possibility of another meeting between the two presidents obviously exists,” Bolton said during an address to the conservative Federalist Society. “But President Trump can’t make the North Koreans walk through the door he’s holding open.”

Keiser argued that it is not unusual for presidents to have faith in their negotiating skills, citing former President Franklin Roosevelt’s talks with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and former Presi-dent Clinton’s efforts with the Israelis and Palestinians.

“President Trump obviously doesn’t lack for confidence and is not unique in this view that if he could just get leaders in a room he could solve some of the world’s most intractable prob-lems,” Keiser said.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said Trump lev-eraging personal relationships is not sufficient to solve geopolitical issues, but could mitigate some effects on the United States.

For example, O’Hanlon said, Trump’s positive remarks about his relationship with China’s Xi have not resolved the trade war, but their rapport has mitigated tensions between Washington and Beijing.

“He sort of sensed intuitively that it couldn’t hurt because either it would improve the pro-spects for a compromise or it would soften the blow and prevent further deterioration of the relationship in the event we did not get a deal on something like a trade relationship,” O’Hanlon said of Trump building a relationship with Xi. “Creating this bond with Xi arguably took a little bit of the bite off of some of these problems.”

Trump building a relationship with Kim has brought the United States back from the brink of war when the two leaders were trading insults even if it may not result in a denuclearization deal, O’Hanlon said.

“I think both of them are operating off this theory that whatever hope there is in the diplomacy is improved if they have a personal relationship that’s good,” he said. “And maybe also what-ever risk there might be of war from a complete breakdown would be mitigated if their rela-tionship is good.”

Klingner, though, was critical of what he called Trump’s “beautification” of Kim, saying it will make it harder to ramp pressure back up if negotiations fall apart.

Instead of a second summit, Klingner said, Trump needs to let the new special envoy do his job.

“The concern is that since Trump is not well versed in Korean issues, he can accept things that on the surface seem fine, but there’s a lot more to each of these terms than many people real-ize,” Klingner said. “So Trump may agree to a peace declaration, seeing it as a chance for a Nobel Peace Prize, without realizing the ramifications that can have on the U.S. military pres-ence in northeast Asia.”

Tags Donald Trump Mike Pompeo

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