U.S. President Donald Trump regularly says his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un remains positive. But Trump may soon have little choice but to change his approach toward Kim, who within days may unveil a new, hardline policy toward the United States.
Kim, who has given the U.S. an end-of-year deadline for nuclear talks, is set to deliver a New Year’s Day speech that may give major clues about North Korea’s direction in 2020. Kim is also presiding over a symbolically important meeting of the country’s ruling party this week.
While no one is sure what Kim will announce – there is always a possibility of a last-minute breakthrough in talks – North Korea has strongly hinted it will raise pressure on Trump in the new year, and Kim has vowed to take his country a “new way” if talks with the United States don’t advance.
Over the past several months, North Korea has threatened to resume intercontinental ballistic missile tests or other major provocations, even warning of an unspecified “Christmas gift” to the U.S. that so far remains undelivered.
Trump has shown an unusual tolerance for North Korean provocations, at least by the standards of other recent U.S. presidents. But as evidence mounts that Trump’s personal outreach to Kim is not leading to progress in nuclear talks, many Trump critics and allies are calling for him to change course.
“From no angle – policy or political – does it make sense for Trump to keep things as they are,” said Rebecca Heinrichs, who focuses on nuclear deterrence and missile defense at the conservative Hudson Institute.
The question is whether Trump should become more or less conciliatory.
Heinrichs, who has defended aspects of Trump’s unorthodox outreach to Kim, says the United States should expand sanctions on North Korea and reinstate U.S.-South Korea military exercises, which were scaled back to preserve the talks.
“In the course of giving Kim diplomatic space, sanctions enforcement and readiness with regional allies have slipped while Kim’s nuclear program and image have improved,” she says.
“The whole approach is on the thinnest ice.”
Another ideological camp prefers a less aggressive approach. They say there’s no evidence sanctions will convince Kim to give up his nuclear program, but will only further raise tensions.
Instead, Trump should work toward an interim deal, in which the United States offers limited sanctions relief, a formal suspension of military exercises, or both, possibly in exchange for a permanent moratorium on North Korean ICBM and nuclear tests, said Joshua Pollack, a North Korea researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“We’ve repeatedly suspended combined military exercises in South Korea, so why not finally put them on the table?” asks Pollack. “Then the two sides could take their time in talks.”
It’s not clear North Korea would accept an interim agreement. The country’s ambassador to the United Nations earlier this month declared that denuclearization is off the negotiating table and that talks with the United States are no longer needed.
Trump downplays threats
There’s also not much evidence Trump is committed to drastic change in either direction.
Trump has rarely discussed North Korea in recent months, and when he has, it’s mainly been to stress his good relationship with Kim.
Asked about North Korea’s threat to deliver a “Christmas gift” to the U.S., Trump responded: “Maybe it’s a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test.”
Trump refused to criticize North Korea as it conducted 13 rounds of short-range missile tests in 2019, though the launches violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and threatened U.S. troops and allies in the region.
For Trump, North Korean provocations are potentially embarrassing, in part because he has already claimed to have solved the problem.
After their first meeting in Singapore, Trump said he knew “for a fact” that Kim would return home and start a process that would “make a lot of people very happy and very safe.”
“There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” Trump tweeted while returning from the summit.
U.S. officials, including Trump, have also repeatedly insisted that Kim agreed in Singapore to give up his nuclear weapons, though in reality the joint statement referenced the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” – a much vaguer description that indicates unspecified concessions from each side.
By one estimate, North Korea has produced material for about 10 more nuclear bombs since Singapore, meaning it now has enough for around 40 total bombs.
Would Trump admit defeat?
But Heinrichs insists it’s not too late for Trump to modify his North Korea policy, and that doing so doesn’t have to be a great political embarrassment.
“I don’t think he needs to or will say the approach failed,” Heinrichs says. “It’s more likely he’ll blame Kim and the previous (U.S.) administrations for passing along the compounding problem.”
Whereas Trump’s comments about Kim have been widely mocked in Washington for being contradictory or inaccurate, Heinrichs sees it differently. Such comments, she says, are an attempt to flatter Kim – essentially to soften him up for a big agreement. And Trump’s approach, she says, could easily be reversed.
“Any other president would have a hard time going from ‘fire and fury’ to nice letters to a return to max pressure…I don’t think it would be as much of a challenge for Trump,” Heinrichs said.
“He seems to be immune to the pressure of convention. Sometimes that creates rare openings for good things and sometimes it results in enormous headaches,” she added.
A bullet-point win?
Others say Trump, a former reality television star and self-styled master negotiator, appears to be looking for a legacy-defining win on North Korea and won’t easily change course.
“Absolutely he can’t admit failure,” said Pollack. “But he can spin it away.”
According to Gwenda Blair, a Trump family biographer who has followed Trump’s real estate and other deals for decades, Trump has often prematurely declared victory or attempted deals even when victory is impossible.
“He wants to be able to do something that’s like a moonshot,” said Blair.
For Blair, Trump’s desire to reach a nuclear deal with North Korea – which has eluded U.S. diplomats for decades – is much like Trump’s recently declared wish to buy Greenland.
“This would be adding the biggest thing since Alaska,” she says. “But no one was interested in selling.”
So what will Trump do if Kim never agrees to denuclearize? Trump himself foreshadowed such a scenario in his post-summit press conference in Singapore.
“Honestly, I think he’s going to do these things. I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong,'” Trump said, before adding: “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of excuse.”