President Donald Trump told Bloomberg News on Monday that he’d be “honoured” to talk to Kim Jong-un, and while it’s not the first time he’s signalled a willingness to meet with perhaps the world’s most brutal dictator — it may provide an important glance into his North Korea strategy.
Several top Trump administration officials have repeatedly stressed an “all options” approach to North Korea, at different times emphasising military action, collaboration with China for harsher sanctions, playing coy about cyber sabotaging its missile program, and now, finally, direct talks.
While Trump has been quick to condemn North Korea’s military provocations, and not shied away from the prospect of conflict, he has at times had generally nice things to say about the country’s leader.
“Not many 27-year-old men could go in and take over a regime … say what you want, but that’s not easy — especially at that age,” Trump said in a past interview with Reuters. In another interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Trump called Kim a “pretty smart cookie.”
During the campaign, he openly said he’d talk to Kim, citing a 10 to 20% chance he’d talk him out of his nuclear program, possibly over hamburgers.
But Yun Sun, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, told Business Insider that direct talks with Kim would have been “impossible” under Obama, who came to power right as North Korea had burned US diplomats by pulling out of the six-party talks at the critical moment when they were set to denuclearize.
“By telling the North Korean leader that he’s a smart cookie, and he’d be honoured to talk to them, I sense a difference in the US policy goals coming to North Korea. President Trump’s goal and his agenda are quite strictly limited to the denuclearization of North Korea,” said Sun.
Sun contrasted this with another agenda: Addressing North Korea’s abysmal human rights record and the dynastic nature of its leadership. According to Sun, Trump may be speaking highly of Kim to signal that his goal is not regime change, only neutralising the nuclear threat.
Sun characterised Trump’s apparent course as a “pretty classic carrot and stick” approach.
But according to Jenny Town, the assistant director of the US-Korea Institute and a managing editor at 38 North, there may not be much to gain by reading into Trump’s statements, which have been all over the place. In addition to the “smart cookie” comment, “he’s also called Kim a madman, imbalanced and irrational,” said Town.
Town noted that Trump said he’d only talk to Kim “under the right circumstances,” and if those circumstances are understood to mean North Korea’s denuclearization, the they’re “still above the threshold of what we can expect North Korea to do unilaterally.”
However, if the US could assure the Kim regime that they didn’t want to remove them from power, then the North Koreans may prove a little more willing to abandon their nuclear ambitions.
“I think across the board, this administration attaches less importance to ideological issues like authoritarianism,” said Sun. With China, where religious persecution is well documented and enemies of the communist party are routinely silenced, Trump has full-throatedly embraced their leader Xi Jinping, often pointing to the strength of their relationship as a lever in the North Korean conflict.
None of the reports from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago summit with Xi have mentioned human rights, which might have been a hot-button issue with administrations past.
“Trump has a pragmatic approach to the foreign policy issues that he sees as most important,” said Sun. “In the current state he sees that North Korean issue is the most important in his priority.”
Indeed we’ve seen this pragmatism elsewhere in Trump’s foreign policy, where he punished Syria’s Bashar Assad with a cruise missile strike while his administration simultaneously admitted that Assad’s place leading Syria was a “political reality.”
But even Xi, North Korea’s treaty ally, hasn’t found Kim honourable to meet with even once since his inauguration in 2011.
Sun said that just because Trump says it would be an honour to meet with Kim, the US’s evaluation of the North Korean regime most likely hasn’t changed. He’s merely signalling a new, tactical willingness to engage with a country that will eventually pose a nuclear threat.
Meanwhile, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier lurks off North Korea’s coast, and Chinese and South Korean diplomats are meeting to discuss tightening sanctions on North Korea.
According to Sun, these actions are likely to pressure the Kim regime while showing that there’s a realistic, not totally humiliating off ramp on the road to a nuclear confrontation.
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