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.
It turns out that, according to NBC News, the U.S. decision was made in part because the administration was afraid that North Korea would pull out of the summit first, and decided to cancel first: You can’t break up with me, I’m dumping you! At 8:20 a.m. Thursday, the State Department issued a statement celebrating progress. Less than 90 minutes later, Trump’s letter of cancelation went out.
“The decision occurred so abruptly that the administration was unable to give congressional leaders and key allies advance notice and the letter went out while more than two dozen foreign journalists, including several U.S. citizens, were inside North Korea where they had gone to witness a promised dismantling of a nuclear test site,” NBC reported.
There was an air of wounded paramour in a background call that the White House held Thursday evening, too. A senior administration official complained that the U.S. had sent a delegation to Singapore for a preliminary meeting, but that the North Koreans had stood them up without warning, just like that guy who didn’t show up for your second Tinder date. (He was lame anyway.)
After the letter, Kim eschewed his usual defiant tone in public statements, saying, “We would like to make known to the U.S. side once again that we have the intent to sit with the U.S. side to solve problem regardless of ways at any time.”
Apparently that was enough to assuage Trump, who tweeted Friday morning, “Very good news to receive the warm and productive statement from North Korea. We will soon see where it will lead, hopefully to long and enduring prosperity and peace. Only time (and talent) will tell!” Then, as he headed to Annapolis to speak at the commissioning ceremony for the Naval Academy, Trump told reporters that the U.S. was in touch with North Korea and the that the summit might still happen—perhaps even on June 12.
Is Trump serious about June 12 being on the table? No one knows, and that gets to the problem. While the U.S. audience puzzles over whether his latest statement is just Trump being Trump, or is the real thing, the North Koreans are doing the same. And as reporters who visit North Korea have found, they’re even more confused than Americans. Like the repeated invocations of Libya in the run-up to Thursday’s schism, and like the cancelation of the Iran deal before that, Trump’s abrupt cancelation and then his flip Friday are not moves that instill confidence in counterparts that the U.S. is a reliable and consistent negotiating partner whose word can be trusted.
Then again, the Trump administration is right to distrust the North Koreans, who have repeatedly pulled the same sort of shenanigans, agreeing to some interim step and then backing away from it—in this case, making vague statements about denuclearization, then muddying the waters. (The administration was warned.) By standing the U.S. up in Singapore, Pyongyang sent a message that it was not a counterpart to be trusted either.
The “I want you to want me” pas de deux is happening in part because this is how delicate negotiations happen. There are decades of distrust between the two countries, and there are bound to be missteps along the way. This counsels some humility in boasting prematurely about interim successes.
Yet it is also easier to argue over who wants a meeting and who is responsible for its failure than it is to deal with the underlying issues. North Korea and the U.S. remain far apart on substance. The U.S. demands that North Korea denuclearize, while the North Koreans take it as a matter of fact that the nuclear program is their best defense against foes, and are wary to give it up. The U.S. has offered little to Pyongyang that might encourage a change of heart, and Trump’s promises of future wealth, while effective when hawking merchandise, don’t resonate much with Kim. The North Korean leader already lives in opulence and doesn’t seem much bothered by the penury of his people.
Those matters are perhaps not unresolvable, but they’re very difficult, and Trump, for one, has shown little interest in the substance of the negotiation, while North Korea benefits from the status quo. Put into romantic terms, it’s much easier to conduct an on-again, off-again flirtation than it is to do the real work of making a relationship function.