HANOI — When President Trump boasts of his wonderful relationship with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un, or claims that there would have been war if he hadn’t been elected, many people cringe.
But behind Trump’s boasting and bluster, a small band of experts in North Korean affairs see a strategy taking shape.
Making Kim feel respected and secure, they say, offers a possible way to persuade him to give up — or at least scale back — his nuclear arsenal in return for economic and diplomatic rewards.
“I am not a Trump supporter on 99 percent of what he does. But, strangely enough, his instincts have been right about North Korea,” said Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington who was involved in past negotiations with the North Koreans while at the State Department.
So far, Trump’s goals for his second summit with Kim have been a moving target.
In advance of Wednesday’s initial talks, he has flattered and cajoled Kim, described the North as an “economic powerhouse” in waiting, and — to the surprise of many — said he was in “no rush” to find a deal that would dismantle Kim’s nuclear program.
Even the definition of “denuclearization” hasn’t been hammered out between U.S. and North Korean negotiators — with Kim’s regime indicating that it could entail a significant rollback of U.S. defense arrangements with allies in the region.
Still, supporters of Trump’s outreach, such as Wit, cite North Korea’s tension-easing suspension of nuclear and missile tests as an important step forward.
Yet Wit’s view is a minority one in the polarized world of Washington. Trump’s Democratic foes — and some Republican hawks — see dangerous signs of a president without much grasp of foreign policy who could be played by the North Koreans. Even Trump’s own intelligence chief, Daniel Coats, testified last month that Kim isn’t likely to give up his nuclear weapons.
But there are others, with deeper knowledge of North Korea than most, who say Trump’s approach is the best game in town at the moment. They say his willingness to rip up the foreign policy rule book on a gut instinct might — just might — be an advantage.
They include Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University who was involved in U.S.-North Korea talks from 1992 to 2000, and Siegfried Hecker, a leading nuclear scientist who visited North Korea’s main Yongbyon nuclear complex in 2010.
At Stanford, Hecker, Carlin and researcher Elliot Serbin have been charting the degree of risk on the Korean Peninsula since 1992, using indicators ranging from diplomacy to various aspects of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
On their color-coded chart, bright green is the safest classification, bright red the riskiest.
When Barack Obama took office, the boxes were a mixture of pinks and light reds. By the time he left office, eight out of 11 boxes were bright red, with North Korea testing missiles and bombs.
By 2017 — with Trump bombastically calling Kim “Little Rocket Man” — nine boxes were bright red.
“The risk of war was high,” Hecker said.
Since then, though, the diplomacy box has shifted to green. With North Korea suspending nuclear and missile tests, other boxes have returned to a more reassuring mid-red or pink.
“Rapid North/South rapprochement and the Singapore Summit in 2018 dramatically lowered tensions and the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula,” the trio says in a report, “creating space and time to pursue diplomatic solutions.”
Before leaving office, Obama told Trump that he had pushed his military to develop plans for a preemptive strike to destroy North Korea’s missiles, Wit said, although those plans were never drawn up. Wit said his conclusions were drawn from 150 interviews with Trump and Obama administration officials over the past year as part of research for a book.
Even Wit, who likes Trump’s approach, says the president’s iconoclastic style and resistance to criticism might also work against him. Combine those with a lack of attention to details, and “that leaves him open to making big mistakes,” Wit said in a breakfast meeting with a group of South Korean lawmakers and experts.
After Trump landed in Hanoi aboard Air Force One on Tuesday, his motorcade passed thousands of onlookers, many recording the moment on their cellphones. People waved and some held flower bouquets or Vietnamese flags, featuring a gold star on a red background.
Earlier, Kim arrived at the Dong Dang train station at Vietnam’s border with China after a 65-hour, 2,500-mile train journey from Pyongyang. Kim, wearing a dark Mao-style suit, disembarked from his personal armored train at 8:22 a.m. under cold, drizzly skies.
By now, Trump’s negotiating strategy is becoming familiar, from NAFTA to the trade talks with China: Go in with guns blazing, dial up the rhetoric and then let officials quietly seek a reasonable compromise.
The risk with North Korea, many experts say, is Trump’s rush to make a deal when talks resume this week.
He could end up granting Kim the diplomatic recognition and economic relief he craves without forcing him to surrender his weapons, allowing North Korea to take its place as a de facto nuclear power, critics fear. Trump may also undermine U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea.
But the president is defiantly sure he’s on the right track.
“So funny to watch people who have failed for years, they got NOTHING, telling me how to negotiate with North Korea. But thanks anyway!” Trump tweeted Monday before leaving for Hanoi.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been the strongest advocate of engagement with the North, struck a similar note.
“Even after overcoming difficulties to get this far, some people are still displeased with improvements in inter-Korean and North Korea-U. S. relations and are trying to drag them down,” he said in a statement. “I urge all of them to discard such biased perspectives, and let’s do our best to seize the opportunity approaching us.”
North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency joined the pushback against Trump’s critics.
Democrats in the United States, it said, are trying to “overtly and covertly disrupt the talks,” using “all sorts of groundless stories and misinformation,” the KCNA wrote.
“Opposition just for the sake of opposition,” the news agency added.
And the KCNA’s take on the U.S. intelligence community?
“It is absolutely as foolhardy as expecting to see a chicken turning into a phoenix to expect proper comment from the U.S. intelligence agencies,” KCNA wrote, “as they have it as their basic mission to claim white to be black, and lies to be truth, out of their skepticism toward others.”
In Hanoi this week, the broad outline of a possible deal has begun to take shape, involving a declaration to end the 1950-1953 Korean War, the opening of liaison offices in each country’s capital, the closure of the Yongbyon nuclear complex and some marginal sanctions relief.
But experts said it remains far from clear whether Trump and Kim will find enough common ground to get it over the line.
The outreach with North Korea is “clearly better off” with Trump’s top-down, summit-driven approach, said Joseph Yun, who served as the U.S. special representative for North Korea from October 2016 to March 2018, spanning Obama and Trump.
“There is no talk of war, so everyone is supportive of engagement of North Korea, political, diplomatic, economic engagement,” he said.
“The question that remains: ‘Has it made a big difference in nuclear weapons development?’ So far the answer is no,” he added. “So this is the question that this summit has to answer.”
John Hudson and David Nakamura contributed to this report.