Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un are both, in relative terms, rookies at the arts of diplomacy. That might explain why the state of American-North Korean diplomacy these days so resembles an awkward adolescent flirtation.
First came the jilted-lover tone of the letter that Trump sent Thursday. Then came a conciliatory statement from North Korea, and by Friday morning, the president was saying that summit might go off as planned on June 12. Defense Secretary James Mattis even dismissed the whole thing a so much teenaged drama, calling it “the usual give and take.”
At the core, this give and take—usual or not—is rooted in a dynamic that the poet Rick Nielsen identified in his 1979 masterpiece “I Want You to Want Me.” Both Trump and Kim badly want a summit with the other, Kim because getting the U.S. to sit down offers his government legitimacy (and perhaps because he believes Trump could be easily manipulated in a face-to-face negotiation), and Trump because he wants to demonstrate that he succeeded in forcing North Korea to the negotiating table where his predecessors could not.
Even more badly than wanting the summit, however, both men want the other one to want it even more than them. Hence Pyongyang’s fiery statement Thursday, calling Vice President Pence stupid and reminding the U.S. of the North Korean nuclear arsenal. By acting out, North Korea wanted to imply that Washington wanted the meeting more. Trump returned the favor. In the first paragraph of his letter to Kim Thursday, even before stating that the summit was canceled, the president asserted, “We were informed that the meeting was requested by North Korea, but that to us is totally irrelevant.” As I wrote yesterday, whatever Trump says is irrelevant tends to be something he values highly.