WASHINGTON — In President Donald Trump’s world populated only with winners and losers, the on-then-off-now-on-again summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has one sure winner already — and, say Korea experts, it’s not Trump.
“Absolutely,” said Jenny Town, the assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “It was a big win for Kim Jong Un.”
Trump on Friday declared the recently canceled Singapore summit with Kim back on. “You’re going to have a very positive result in the end,” he said after a 90-minute meeting at the White House with a senior North Korean aide.
But Kim scored his victory, Town said, way back on March 8, when Trump excitedly accepted Kim’s invitation to a meeting that was relayed by a top South Korean aide. Trump almost immediately changed his tone toward Kim, calling him “very honorable” not long after questioning his sanity and deriding the size and potency of his nuclear arsenal.
“He’s done quite well for himself,” Town said of Kim, who reportedly had a number of top North Korean officials executed by anti-aircraft gun and his half-brother assassinated with a nerve agent in a foreign airport. “He’s really done quite a lot to rehabilitate his reputation.”
Perhaps more dangerous for the U.S., Japan and particularly South Korea, Trump’s eagerness for the summit has given more leverage to Kim, who may now be in a much better position to give only token concessions in return for a meeting that puts him on par with the world’s only real superpower, Town said.
“The messaging now on the summit is more ‘We have to have a summit,’” she said, adding that none of the groundwork for a meaningful deal — such as even understanding precisely how many nuclear weapons and how much nuclear material North Korea possesses — has been completed. “That’s the risk we run now, having the show for the sake of the show. This isn’t normal diplomacy.”
The White House disputed that Trump is overly eager for the summit or that he is in any danger of getting played by Kim.
“We continue to actively prepare for a meeting between the president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un,” said National Security Council spokesman Robert Palladino.
Trump’s lawyer and adviser Rudy Giuliani called the summit “a historic achievement” and said there was no way Trump would be taken advantage of by Kim. “No. No. No. You don’t know Donald Trump if you think that,” Giuliani said. “He has understood from the start what he wants … We’re not equal powers. And I think Trump realizes that.”
Yet others close to Trump wonder if he has any understanding of that at all. They point to his fondness for holding mini press conferences with foreign leaders and his receptivity to flattery from them — and said it is possible that Trump is not aware that Kim and his father, North Korea’s previous dictator, have been trying to stage a summit with an American president for decades.
“Perhaps more dangerous for the U.S., Japan and particularly South Korea, Trump’s eagerness for the summit has given more leverage to Kim.”
One Republican adviser said on condition of anonymity that Trump knows almost nothing of the intricacies of nuclear disarmament in general or of North Korea in particular and is not interested in learning them. “He thinks that all he needs to do is get into a room with Kim for two hours, and he thinks he can get it all worked out,” the adviser said and then pointed to how much Trump enjoyed it when allies on Capitol Hill suggested he should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his yet-to-occur summit. “The three best days of his presidency were the days he was talking about the Nobel Prize. He was loving up on that.”
Trump’s statements have clearly shown how enthusiastic he is for a summit to take place, even after his May 24 letter to Kim calling off the June 12 date, said Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
“He’s eager. You could see it in his withdrawal letter. He really wanted it,” Pollack said, adding that he did not understand Trump’s fixation on June 12. “He just seems to equate the meeting with the outcome, and he doesn’t seem to care much about the process … What is so damn special about that date? I don’t know. It just creates this artificial pressure.”
Trump’s continued optimistic — even boastful — comments about the summit and its outcome are often at odds with statements from North Korea and even his own staff.
On May 10, deputy press secretary Raj Shah told reporters on Air Force One that North Korea promised to stop testing nuclear devices and long-range missiles and to avoid publicly criticizing planned U.S.–South Korean military exercises.
Within days, North Korea criticized those joint exercises and threatened to back out of the summit — leading the United States to cancel a portion of the drills that involved B-52 bombers.
Then, after Trump fired off his letter canceling the summit — but before he started saying it could be back on as scheduled — a senior White House official gave reporters a list of steps North Korea said it would take before a summit but did not complete. Among them was allowing in international observers for the much-publicized destruction of a nuclear test site.
“There has been a trail of broken promises that gave the United States pause,” the official said.
(Trump later became angry when a published report accurately reflected the official’s sense that a June 12 summit would not be possible at that point because of the lack of time for preparation. Trump falsely claimed the official did not exist, even though the White House staged the briefing and insisted the official’s name not be published.)
On Friday, after walking Kim’s envoy, Kim Yong Chol, to his SUV on the White House driveway, Trump again praised North Korea, saying he was holding off on new sanctions because of how well things were going. He said the June 12 meeting might not accomplish an agreement — he called it a “getting to you know you plus” summit — and thus might be just the first in a series of summits with Kim Jong Un.
“He really wants it,” Pollack said. “I don’t know what this summit will amount to. It looks like he just wants the damned photo op. When he agreed to this in the first place, going over his advisers’ head, it was obvious he really wanted it.”