In a breathtaking gambit that surprised his closest advisers, President Trump, almost impulsively, accepted an invitation on Thursday to meet the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—by May—to discuss how to defuse the world’s most dangerous nuclear standoff. The invitation was relayed by a South Korean delegation that met with Kim earlier this week and then travelled to Washington. It will be the first-ever meeting between American and North Korean heads of state. The location is yet to be designated, but the odds are that it will be a South Korean or Chinese venue.
Unless the summit is just an extraordinary photo opportunity to symbolize the easing of tensions or a simple listening tour, the new U.S.-North Korean track is backward diplomatically. A summit of leaders is usually the reward rather than the starting point. Normally, months or even years of diplomatic legwork are required to work out terms to be formally approved by heads of state. The Clinton Administration spent years working on phases of a deal to curtail North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which included a trip by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang. A visit by President Clinton was supposed to be the final deal-maker.
As it is currently set up, President Trump has everything to lose if he comes away without tangible and extensive gains that meet his long-standing demand for North Korea to abandon the world’s deadliest weapon. Kim, who leads the world’s most isolated country, has everything to gain from the stature that comes from a summit with the world’s leading superpower.
North Korea’s wily charm offensive this year, and President Trump’s willingness to embrace it, are stunning reversals after a torrent of threats during the final months of 2017. At his United Nations début, in September, President Trump described Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man” on a “suicide mission.” The United States would have “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if it had to defend itself or its allies, he said. Kim countered by labelling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” The President’s speech “convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct, and that it is the one I have to follow to the last,” he said.
In October, Trump tweeted, “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man….” And just hours before the surprise announcement on Thursday, Tillerson told a press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that the United States was “still a long ways from negotiations” with North Korea. “We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it.” The first step, he predicted, would be talks about talks.
Trump’s historic decision unfolded in just a matter of hours—and it was also highly unusual. It followed a meeting with Chung Eui-yong, the national-security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. President Trump seemed so excited about his decision that he ducked into the White House press room to announce that the South Korean official would have an important statement at 7 P.M.—but provided no details. Speaking at the press stakeout outside the White House, Chung told reporters, “I explained to President Trump that his leadership and his maximum pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture.”
In a statement, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the President “greatly appreciates the nice words” of the South Korean delegation. “We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea. In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.”
The biggest unanswered question is what North Korea wants in exchange for scrapping its nuclear weapons. It could include an end to military exercises between the United States and South Korea, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War, normalization of diplomatic relations, guarantees of non-aggression, an end to economic sanctions, and possibly economic aid.
In some ways, it’s an offer—and an opportunity—that’s impossible to refuse. Diplomacy to eliminate the North’s weapons has been an American goal for more than two decades. President Trump is the latest in a long line of Presidents—dating back to Harry Truman—to navigate the enigmatic regime in North Korea, which has been ruled by three generations of the Kim dynasty for seven decades. In 1950, President Truman announced his willingness to use an atomic bomb—“every weapon that we have”—against North Korea during the war to prevent Communist aggression on the South.
At the same time, diplomacy has never fully succeeded, despite assorted pledges and pacts during the previous three Administrations. And the stakes today are much higher. “Diplomacy is much tougher now than it’s ever been because the North Koreans have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them,” Wendy Sherman, who worked on the North Korea portfolio in the Clinton and Obama Administrations, told me. Sherman accompanied Albright to Pyongyang, in 2000, on the only trip made there by a ranking U.S. official since the end of the Korean War. (I was on that trip, too.)
Last year alone, the North conducted more than two-dozen missile tests, including the test of a missile capable of reaching any part of the United States, and tested a hydrogen bomb—adding to its arsenal of atomic bombs. “The North Koreans have much more leverage than before,” Sherman said. “Comparisons to the past are useful but they’re not adequate for where we are right now.”
American Presidents have long vowed to block proliferation of the world’s deadliest weapon. But brokering deals has consistently been their most frustrating foreign-policy challenge. In 1984, President Reagan bluntly warned Pakistan against developing a bomb. But it did, conducting its first nuclear test in 1998. President Clinton pledged that North Korea would not get the bomb “even at the risk of war.” But it did, conducting its first test in 2006. President George W. Bush vowed that Iran would not get the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. But it did, although U.S. intelligence believed it was still at least months away from a bomb when a nuclear deal was struck in 2015.
The U.S. track record with North Korea is the longest and most tortured. The first breakthrough was in 1994, when the Clinton Administration brokered the Agreed Framework. North Korea promised to immediately freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear program, which included two reactors under construction that Washington was concerned could produce fuel for a bomb. In turn, Pyongyang would receive energy substitutes—heavy fuel oil in the short-term and the eventual construction of two light-water reactors not able to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon.
“North Korea did not produce one additional ounce of fissile material, no nuclear weapons and no ballistic missiles during the Clinton Administration,” Sherman said. But the deal proved to be too complex and time-consuming. “We moved very slowly on the Framework,” she said. “We didn’t realize how hard it was to do, so there were all kinds of problems and slowdowns. Using a [international] consortium to build and finance a [light-water] reactor was not easy. We also didn’t really move to normalize relations, which is what was expected by the North.” The deal also got caught up in domestic politics. The accord coincided with the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress, known as the Republican Revolution. “The Republicans never liked it anyway,” Sherman said.
The agreement was also complicated when the North began testing ballistic missiles, in 1998. The Clinton Administration wanted to extend the Agreed Framework to include missiles. Albright travelled to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il, in 2000, hoping to pave the way for the wider accord and a historic trip by President Clinton during his final weeks in office. “We were in the midst of serious negotiations on a moratorium on missiles and we ran out of time,” Sherman told me. “We did not get to it as President Clinton was also trying to do Middle East peace, and he didn’t have the time to do both.”
The Framework deteriorated in the early years of the Bush Administration, which charted a tougher course. President Bush labelled North Korea one of three countries in an “axis of evil”—along with Iran and Iraq—in his 2002 State of the Union address. U.S. intelligence also disclosed that North Korea was secretly working on uranium enrichment. Washington stopped providing heavy fuel oil. Pyongyang expelled U.N. weapons inspectors. The Framework collapsed. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The Bush Administration signed on to a new international effort in the Six Party Talks, which also included China, Russia, Japan and both North and South Korea. It was a diplomatic rollercoaster. In 2005, North Korea did agree—again—to eventually denuclearize and to rejoin the N.P.T. In exchange, it would—again—receive energy aid, security guarantees, and eventual normalization of relations with the United States and Japan. The process got bumpy after the U.S. Treasury sanctioned North Korean trading companies, as well as Banco Delta Asia, which it accused of laundering money on behalf of the North Korean government.
“To North Korea, it seemed contradictory. It didn’t seem like the U.S. was acting in good faith,” Frank Aum, a former senior adviser on North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who is now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me. “One day there was an agreement, the next day sanctions.”
In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test as well as multiple missile tests. The Six Party Talks reconvened in 2007, offering a specific timeline of action and aid. In 2008, President Bush removed North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. But the initiative began to unravel again when the United States pushed to move up the verification process, partly to show a foreign-policy success at a time when it was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Suspicions and distrust deepened in both Washington and Pyongyang, and the talks stopped.
The Obama Administration made only one modest stab at diplomacy. On February 29, 2012, the so-called Leap Day Accord required North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs—to be verified by international inspectors—in exchange for food aid and a U.S. statement of non-hostility. But the deal collapsed after North Korea announced plans to launch a satellite to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of founding father Kim Il Sung’s birth. The U.S. and five other nations viewed it as a violation of U.N. resolutions, even though satellites were not included in the agreement.
Who was most at fault? “Hawks blame North Korea. Proponents of engagement argue that the U.S. didn’t live up to its terms in the nineteen-nineties,”Aum told me. “Both sides are right.”
Bruce Klingner, the former C.I.A. deputy division chief for Korea, blames the skimpiness of past deals. “All the agreements on North Korea were short, vaguely worded documents that allowed everyone to have a different interpretation in order to reach an agreement,” he said. “If we get far enough down the road on this charm offensive, when it gets down to putting pen to paper, we need to have a far more detailed and clearly delineated agreement than any in the past.”
But few with experience are optimistic about the prospects of what would almost certainly be diplomacy stretching over many years. The 2015 Iran deal took two years of intense diplomacy, had the backing of the world’s six major powers, and involved hundreds of personnel just from the United States.
“People tend to look through ideological lens, touting one party over the other,” Klingner, who is now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said. “I argue that neither party nor any Administration has any monopoly on good or bad ideas on North Korea. It’s Al Capone acts like Al Capone because that’s his nature—and it’s not dependent on the whether the mayor is a Democrat or Republican. The common denominator is that North Korea has cheated or not abided by any agreement it’s signed.”
Given the history of diplomacy and North Korea’s current capabilities, there may be nothing that convinces the regime to give up its bombs or missiles. “We may get back to negotiations,” Aum told me. “The issue is how do we overcome the fundamental problem of whether North Korea really is willing to denuclearize, and, if so, at what cost? And is the U.S. willing to meet all its terms? The answer seems to be no. If we gave North Korea everything it wanted, it still wouldn’t denuclearize, because nothing guarantees your security more than a nuclear weapon.”