About the Author
View more articles by Dan DePetris
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the National Interest and a contributor to 38 North, a program of the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s remarks to the Workers’ Party Central Committee in late December was a precedent for what is coming down the pike, we could be experiencing a long, cold, dead winter with diplomacy shivering in the wilderness.
While it’s true Kim didn’t shut the door completely during his address, he couldn’t have made his contempt for the current process any clearer: at this point in time, he is preparing his country for a year of sanctions and hardship. Tighten your belts, fellow countrymen!
All this makes the news of President Donald Trump’s congratulatory birthday message to Kim last week all the more interesting.
Washington and Pyongyang find themselves in a strange love-hate relationship, where the leaders at the top continue to converse at a personal level but where their negotiating positions remain virtually irreconcilable.
Below the leadership level, the relationship is like a wet blanket to the diplomatic process. Indeed, U.S.-North Korea relations are very much akin to a husband and wife who get along swimmingly but whose respective families can’t stand each other.
To Trump, who boasts of himself as the greatest negotiator who ever walked God’s green earth, the underlings aren’t nearly as important as his own ability to strike a personal connection.
Trump’s nearly two-year-long diplomatic strategy with the North has rested less on the particularities of any deal and more on the President’s ability to schmooze the other side and embrace unconventionality.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun has labored to run an orderly, professional process — during his last trip to South Korea, Japan, and China, Biegun all but pleaded for his North Korean interlocutors to pick up the phone and start talking — but one can’t help but get the sinking feeling that the only thread keeping diplomacy from falling apart is the rapport Trump and Kim have weaved together.
One could of course persuasively argue that diplomacy has already reached that depressing point. You could be excused for holding this position.
The optics don’t look particularly encouraging. They haven’t looked particularly encouraging since Trump and Kim returned to their capitals from Hanoi, Vietnam nearly a year ago.
The quick meeting last June at Panmunjom, during which Trump made a ceremonial step onto North Korean soil, was supposed to serve as a jolt to a process in the doldrums. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, working-level talks would begin “very soon.” He seemed sure of it. It was only a matter of time.
And yet the date kept getting pushed and pushed and pushed. Pompeo would say the same thing in public: bear with us, be patient, discussions will begin momentarily.
Those talks did eventually begin, but it took over three months before the session occurred. By the time the meeting happened, the North arrived in Sweden with a pre-planned speech denouncing Washington for its stubbornness.
U.S.-North Korea relations are very much akin to a husband and wife who get along swimmingly but whose respective families can’t stand each other
While it would be silly for anyone to predict what’s in Trump’s mind at any given moment, his thought process on North Korea has been fairly consistent (by Trumpian standards, at least).
The President continues to believe he can take his relationship with Kim and magically turn it into the very denuclearization agreement his predecessors had failed to achieve for over a quarter of a century.
It’s the classic New York mentality: make a good first impression, gradually build trust, and butter up your sparring partner until he or she signs on the dotted line.
Unfortunately for Trump, international negotiations don’t follow an easy script.
While leader-to-leader connections can help kindle the fires of diplomacy and even facilitate talks during troubled periods — think of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in the lead up to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — even the most powerful people on the planet don’t have the ability to pull off a magic act.
Countries have their own concerns, priorities, fears, and interests, and none of those differences can be solved by sprinkling fairy dust over the process.
If you sat down with a U.S. State Department or White House official and were granted anonymity, there is a decent chance he or she will admit that nuclear diplomacy is not going anywhere.
Despite two meetings between Trump and Kim, 2019 was a wasted year. The way things stand, with North Korean foreign ministry officials essentially writing negotiations off and the Trump administration still committed to an objective (Pyongyang’s final, fully-verified denuclearization) that is about as realistic as buying a lottery ticket and winning a billion-dollar jackpot, 2020 doesn’t look any more promising.
A lot can happen over a year. Things can change quickly due to unforeseen events, and I may look back at this piece in six months and wonder how I was so wrong. For the sake of peace on the Korean peninsula, I hope I am.
But right now, the situation looks incredibly bleak. It will turn downright depressing if old negotiating positions calcify.
Edited by James Fretwell