President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shattered more than a year of relative tranquility Thursday with the U.S. seizure of a North Korean vessel and the isolated regime’s launch of two short-range ballistic missiles.
The renewed tensions followed a series of internal battles Trump and Kim fought with their own subordinates in the process of striving for a historic disarmament deal.
“Nobody’s happy about it,” Trump told reporters in Washington in some of his most downbeat remarks concerning the relationship to date. “They’re talking about negotiating, but I don’t think they’re ready to negotiate.”
It was the first time the United States had seized a North Korean cargo vessel for violating international sanctions, the Justice Department said, and the first confirmed missile test by Pyongyang in more than 500 days.
The return of tit-for-tat provocations demonstrated the limits of the personal relationship between Kim and Trump that the president has touted as key to overcoming decades of mistrust.
Last month, Trump sent Kim a “happy birthday” letter commemorating the birth date of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and expressed interest in future engagements following the collapse of their meeting in February in Hanoi.
“He sends him pictures. He sends him letters. I don’t know how President Trump can be more forthcoming in his efforts to have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un,” national security adviser John Bolton told “PBS NewsHour.”
In building a rapport, Trump and Kim have talked about basketball, pop culture and even video games, U.S. officials said, while slapping down hawkish advisers who disappoint them.
In April, Kim demoted his point man for the nuclear talks, Kim Yong Chol, rebuking a prominent hard-liner and former spy chief who exasperated U.S. negotiators with his stubborn demands and aloof demeanor, two State Department officials said.
Trump also has battled with his top advisers to preserve a positive atmosphere for a deal. On Tuesday, Trump told South Korea’s president in a phone call that he supports aid for North Korea to ease food shortages, despite the concerns of some U.S. officials that it might ease internal pressure on the regime. In March, he ruled out future sanctions against North Korea in a meeting with Bolton and reacted angrily after learning that previous sanctions were imposed without his approval, U.S. officials said.
“What’s really striking is how in both systems, the bureaucracies aren’t always moving in the same direction as the leaders are signaling,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Kim’s decision to fire off missiles after a long hiatus appears to signal impatience with the Trump administration’s hard-nosed negotiating tactics, analysts said.
“The problem is: How do Trump and Kim overcome this stalemate?” said Sue Mi Terry, a North Korea scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former CIA analyst. “There doesn’t appear to be a way forward.”
Trump has grown frustrated with public criticism of his administration’s tactics and complained privately that Kim makes for a tough and mercurial negotiating partner.
“It’s not like [I’m] dealing with the president of France,” Trump said at a recent private gathering of supporters, according to a person present during the conversation, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
The president told the group a graphically detailed story in which he said Kim had killed his uncle Jang Song Thaek and displayed his head for others to see, the person present said.
The claim about Kim displaying Jang’s head is a curiosity. Though North Korean state-run media announced in 2013 that Jang had been executed, there are no public reports of a corpse exhibition and he is believed to have been killed by firing squad.
The blame game over the impasse in the talks has scrambled the usual alliances of hawks and doves in Washington.
Top conservative think tank scholars at the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have criticized the administration and called for even more economic sanctions. By contrast, many advocates of engagement and nonproliferation have offered cautious support for a step-by-step process that trades partial sanctions relief for partial denuclearization.
“Trump’s instincts on engaging the North Koreans have been sound,” said Robert Carlin, a longtime Korea scholar at Stanford University and a former State Department official. “The reemergence of Bolton’s all-or-nothing approach put us back in the hole.”
During the Hanoi summit, Trump kept Bolton away from a dinner with Kim and told other White House officials that his adviser would not help broker a deal because he viewed the regime so negatively, the officials said.
When asked about his satisfaction with his adviser, the president said Thursday that “John’s very good” but that he has to counterbalance his views.
“He has strong views on things, but that’s okay. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing isn’t it?” Trump said at an impromptu briefing. “I have other people who are a little more dovish than him, and ultimately I make the decision.”
National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said Bolton is “pursuing the president’s national security agenda, and he has repeatedly emphasized that the president has opened the door for North Korea to enter into a very bright economic future.”
Despite his private frustrations, the president has instructed his advisers to keep a positive outlook. After North Korea launched short-range projectiles last week, Trump maintained that demeanor.
“I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it,” Trump tweeted. “He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”
Still, the launch of even short-range missiles is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, raising questions about how the United States will decide to engage North Korea from here on out.
A key reason for Kim’s demotion of his top negotiator was his irritation at being caught off guard when Trump chose to leave Hanoi without an agreement, said officials familiar with the negotiations. Before the summit, Kim Yong Chol had provided optimistic assessments on the status of the talks, and the North Korean leader believed Trump would accept an interim deal that traded partial economic sanctions relief for partial denuclearization.
Kim has now appointed Jang Kum Chol as the new head of the United Front Department. Meanwhile, he promoted Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, who offered him more-cautious assessments on the status of the negotiations, and awarded her with membership on the State Affairs Commission, said the diplomats.
Choe and her boss accompanied Kim to a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok on April 25, while Kim Yong Chol did not. Though no one’s position is assured, the shake-up appears to swap a group of hardened intelligence officers who irritated U.S. negotiators for diplomats with more experience hammering out technical agreements.
“Choe Son Hui knows Americans well and has worked on these issues for decades,” said Joel Wit, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center, noting Choe’s participation in six-party talks involving the United States, North Korea and other nations during the George W. Bush administration. “She’ll have a good feel for whether an agreement is possible or not.”
Besides blaming his own subordinates, Kim has directed his aides to lash out at Trump’s top advisers for enforcing a hard line in the negotiations, said diplomats familiar with the matter. Choe has accused Pompeo and Bolton of creating an “atmosphere of hostility and mistrust” despite the “mysteriously wonderful” chemistry between Trump and Kim.
The one U.S. adviser who has escaped the ire of the North is Special Representative Steve Biegun, a former Ford executive who has tangled with Bolton and other hawkish aides in his efforts to find a diplomatic solution. Biegun is viewed by many diplomats as the best hope for a breakthrough in the talks, but commanding the attention of Pyongyang has been a struggle for him.
Since the shake-up, Biegun has asked Choe for a meeting but has not received a response, said diplomats familiar with his correspondence.
Biegun told The Washington Post that the “working-level discussions” involving less-senior diplomats in Hanoi helped the two sides “narrow the gap on a number of issues” and stressed that those lower-level talks should take priority before another presidential summit.
“President Trump’s summit with Chairman Kim in Hanoi was a very productive meeting, though the time was not right to sign a deal,” he said. “We believe working-level talks are the best way to make progress at this time.”
Supporters of Trump’s push for a diplomatic solution to the crisis hope that Biegun and Choe can find a way to move the talks forward.
“We’re hoping to be able to develop and build that trust between [them],” Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said in an interview at the Swedish Embassy in Washington. “Biegun impressed us.”
Sweden played host to Biegun and Choe in January, but at the time, the two diplomats mostly “sounded each other out,” rather than negotiating specifics, Wallstrom said.
North Korea’s lack of response to Biegun could be because of its own deliberations over who his proper counterpart should be. “They’re trying to figure out if Choe or someone else should be working with him,” Wit said.
It could also demonstrate, however, North Korea’s disinterest in negotiating with anyone except Trump.
The intentions of North Korea’s leader are never plainly clear, but Kim has stressed the importance of moving quickly to conclude a deal, saying in a recent speech that he would wait only “till the end of the year” for the United States to take a more flexible approach on sanctions relief.
“From Kim’s perspective, Trump is the only person he can get a good deal out of,” said Terry, the former CIA analyst. “Any other leader would go with a bottom-up diplomatic process. But with Trump it’s top-down and he’s willing to sign a peace treaty and put alliance equities on the table. That’s why Kim wants to see a deal and why traditional Korea analysts get nervous.”
Trump, too, appears eager for an agreement.
Given Trump’s enthusiasm, his aides have been careful to keep him up to date, but some more than others.
In March, after the U.S. imposed new North Korea sanctions and was considering future measures, White House aide Robert Blair warned Bolton that Trump was never notified and might not want them, U.S. officials said. Bolton said he knew what Trump wanted and would handle the issue. But Bolton’s confidence, first reported by Bloomberg News, appeared to be misplaced.
The next day, Bolton told Trump about the sanctions and the possibility of more in the future. Trump responded angrily, said two officials familiar with the meeting, and said he didn’t want future or previous sanctions. “I don’t want to do it,” Trump repeated.
Faced with the unusual prospect of canceling just-announced sanctions, Trump and his aides engaged in a tense back-and-forth that included an intervention by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to defend the earlier sanctions. Eventually, Trump agreed to keep the previous round but insisted that he didn’t want future sanctions.
The White House punctuated the decision in a statement designed to keep the talks alive and assure one young world leader above all others that Trump understands him.
“President Trump likes Chairman Kim,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said. “He doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”