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.
After more than 18 weeks of Washington, DC living in the myopia of impeachment, the U.S. Senate acquitted President Donald Trump on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress last week. Trump, who has weathered scandal after scandal (largely of his own making) ever since he took the oath of office three years ago, has survived the biggest crisis of his political life.
Finally free of the impeachment saga, a question arises as to whether Trump will exploit the opportunity to press on with matters of state. As always, North Korea is at the top of the list.
To put it generously, diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang could use a jolt of energy. The process has been as stagnant as a mosquito-infested pond in the dead of summer.
The last bilateral dialogue, held in Stockholm in October 2019, collapsed after a day with vastly different interpretations about the tone of the meeting and whether it was even productive. The North Koreans tongue-lashed the Americans for showing up with old ideas and a hostile attitude.
Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun spent the remainder of the year struggling to keep the diplomatic process alive, essentially begging his North Korean counterparts to phone him during his end-of-year trip to South Korea.
The holidays came and went without the proverbial “Christmas gift” North Korean officials promised, but the negotiations have nonetheless been on a fast-track to a fiery death.
Experts and pundits predicted that impeachment would likely need to conclude before U.S.-North Korea diplomacy restarted.
This was due to a number of factors: Trump’s own tendency to focus on personal survival; the cynicism and bad optics associated with using international nuclear diplomacy as a tool to divert the public’s attention from his own alleged misdeeds; and Kim Jong Un’s lack of incentive to proceed with talks in an environment where Washington was totally distracted with its own problems.
Trump may have still gone to bed dreaming of a historic denuclearization and peace deal signing with Kim in the White House Diplomatic Room. But it’s tough to believe he didn’t grasp the weight of impeachment and how it would impact his ability to negotiate with the North Koreans.
While his acquittal was never in doubt, all of the depositions, hearings, and trial proceedings amounted to a big albatross hanging around his neck.
If Trump was an all-powerful being who presided over the laws of the universe, there would be little doubt of his desire to resume nuclear diplomacy with Kim forthwith.
The reality television star loves the big moment, the incessant click of the cameras, and the mob of reporters gazing up at him as he sits with one of the world’s most enigmatic leaders.
A meeting with Kim provides Trump with all of these goodies and more, which is partly why he decided in 2018 to skip the formalities of working-level talks and take a one-on-one stroll in the garden with the North Korean leader.
Trump is prematurely convinced of his own intellect, fully confident in his instinct, and completely invested in his ability to persuade.
Despite the lackluster results of his 20-month diplomatic enterprise thus far, the President likely remains utterly persuaded that he — and he alone — can turn water into wine in the form of a denuclearized North Korea.
Back on earth, of course, Trump is only one piece of the wider puzzle. The nuclear negotiations have never recovered from the February 2019 summit in Hanoi, when Trump and Kim flew back home in disappointment and frustration.
The North Koreans haven’t demonstrated much interest since then in what the Americans have to say. Even Biegun’s one-day sojourn in Sweden was less a working dialogue and more a North Korean grievance-fest about America the hostile power, America the two-face snake, and America the backstabber.
Kim pretty much delivered what North Korea’s strategic position will be over the next year when he addressed the Workers Party Central Committee last December: denuclearization is off the table until the United States starts implementing its commitments under the 2018 Singapore statement. There isn’t much ambiguity left.
The President likely remains utterly persuaded that he — and he alone — can turn water into wine in the form of a denuclearized North Korea
In more normal times, Washington could enlist the help of its South Korean ally to get things back on course.
But President Moon Jae-in’s relationship with Pyongyang is not exactly fruitful at this point, the height of irony given the fact that the Blue House is highly determined to improve relations with its Korean brothers in the north.
One could imagine Trump taking advantage of his impeachment victory and running full-steam ahead on the business of statecraft. After all, what better way to sell yourself to the American people as a commander in chief and a statesman in an election year by signing an accord with North Korea?
Reality, however, has a bad habit of squashing the wildest imaginations. And the reality is this: if Washington is not willing to be far more grounded in its objectives and more tepid in its expectations, the diplomatic opening that seemed so promising in 2018 will slam shut.
Even then, the United States may have no choice but to wait until a new U.S. administration is in office.
Edited by James Fretwell