Read: The United States is still trying to sell North Korea on denuclearization
“Both leaders are free to put aside their briefing books—assuming they even look at them—and move according to their instincts and sense of the possible. Bureaucracies and advisors working with kings, emperors and presidents have known that for centuries,” wrote Stanford’s Robert Carlin, a North Korea scholar who recently held the most detailed discussion yet with Trump’s special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, on the administration’s vision for diplomacy with Kim.
“Many experts would be more comfortable with the working-level process leading, possibly and eventually, to the summit,” he added. “But we have the reverse, and no one really knows what it will mean to ski downhill from the top of Mt. Everest.”
Georgetown’s Elizabeth Saunders, who has studied Trump’s approach to meetings with world leaders, told me that the differences between the president and his aides are leading the North Koreans to “want to deal directly with Trump.” For instance, National Security Adviser John Bolton has long opposed the type of diplomacy that Trump is now conducting with Kim. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his team are more flexible, but also more insistent than the president that North Korea make serious concessions on its nuclear-weapons program before receiving benefits from the United States. Whatever misgivings they might have, both officials highlight the importance of Trump and Kim’s relationship.
Asked whether U.S. officials can trust Kim, Bolton, a man once fond of describing North Korea’s leaders as inveterate liars, simply responded that “the negotiation really is between the president and Kim Jong Un.” Regarding denuclearization, Pompeo humbly noted that “we hope when the two leaders get together again, they can make substantial progress.”
Read: How to deal with North Korea
What’s most important is, “I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un” and “I've done a job” with North Korea that “nobody else” could have, Trump declared earlier this month. If any administration but his were in office, he’s said, the United States would be in “a nice, big, fat war in Asia.”
For Trump, this “great man” theory of international affairs extends well beyond North Korea. “He and I are the only two people that can bring about massive and very positive change, on trade and far beyond, between our two great nations,” the president has asserted regarding Chinese President Xi Jinping. The U.S. relationship with Russia “has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago,” he proclaimed after huddling with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
South Korea’s leaders, in seeking to steer Trump away from the military pressure that threatened to engulf the Korean peninsula in war just over a year ago, have reinforced the message. During a recent visit to the United States, the speaker of the legislature stated that Trump is “renowned for his bold decision-making and negotiation skills” and playing “a determinant role” in the inter-Korean peace process. President Moon Jae In has lauded the U.S. president as “the only person who can solve [the North Korean] problem.” (Trump has lapped such lines up, once repeating a similar comment from Moon even as he acknowledged how “braggadocious” he sounded.) I’ve spoken with multiple South Korean officials who echoed their president’s call for Trump to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. “Nobel Prize to Trump, peace to Koreans,” one adviser to Moon told me.