Regardless, despite positive public statements from both delegations immediately following a no-deal outcome in Hanoi, North Korea had clearly been the unhappy party, and nuclear diplomacy remained deadlocked, with virtually no direct communication between the two countries’ negotiating teams. All the while, Pyongyang continued to develop its nuclear-weapons arsenal.
Read: The disturbing logic of Trump’s lovefest with Kim Jong Un
Trump and Kim have, for better or worse, embarked on relationship summitry. This means their interactions or negotiations cannot simply be transactional—the process entails the good, the bad, and the ugly of any relationship. It means extra work is needed to cajole, explain, and patch up hurt feelings as needed. It means that the stakes are higher because if talks fail at the summit level, there is nowhere else to go. That is what makes the news that Trump had sent an “excellent” letter to Kim all the more important.
Effectively since Hanoi, Pyongyang had ghosted Washington’s repeated calls to continue discussions between negotiators, while lobbing insults at senior United States officials through its state media for interfering with the two leaders’ relationship. Trump’s latest letter shows that, at the highest level at least, the bromance continues. Kim recently sent what Trump called a “beautiful letter” on the one-year anniversary of their first meeting in Singapore and just days before Trump’s birthday (though it reportedly lacked details on how to break the current diplomatic lull). The response from Trump indicates that there is still some warmth between the pair amid an awkward and tense phase in the relationship between their two countries.
Yet Kim has also shown that he has other options if this tree doesn’t fall—he sat down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in April, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Kim in Pyongyang last week. Rekindling these Cold War alliances signals that Pyongyang is not obsessed with Washington, has other means of survival should summitry fail, and has the backing of two major powers as it deals with Washington.
Trump’s unconventional (and even brash) style in foreign affairs is unfortunately inescapable. But unconventionality, if used strategically and creatively, might prove to yield lasting breakthroughs when dealing with a unique country like North Korea. The continued exchange of love letters between the two leaders, although normally inadvisable under any other American president, might need to become a new norm. Trump and Kim cannot regularly converse on the sidelines of major international summits like other normal states, and communicating directly with Kim is the surest way to glean insights into North Korean thinking.
Read: How to deal with North Korea
So what did the president say?