The Trump administration got a little ahead of itself in touting its grand success in handling North Korea and its suddenly agreeable leader Kim Jong-un. Trump basked in the chants suggesting he could be in line for the Nobel Peace Prize and took the diplomatic thaw on tour suggesting he was kind of a big deal for what was coming down the pike. The plaudits still may be in line, but, suddenly, the mood and state of play has shifted as North Korea has begun dragging its feet on even small logistics leading up to the proposed June 12th summit in Singapore.
Is it a negotiating tactic by Pyongyang? Well, yes. And it’s working. Trump, in an effort to keep North Korea at the table has already agreed to budge on the administration’s (perhaps unrealistic) principle demand that Pyongyang denuclearize before offering American concessions, indicating his willingness to agree to a phased denuclearization. It’s quite a concession at the first sign of trouble, still three weeks before the real face-off is even scheduled to begin! And there’s no guarantee we’ll even get that far. The Washington Post reported Tuesday on a number of procedural breaches by the North Koreans throwing up warning signs that the Kim regime could be looking to scuttle the possibility of a deal—or coaxing more concessions out of the Trump White House.
Here are some of the recent red flags that should serve as warning signs of what’s to come:
• Less than two weeks ago, a North Korean delegation failed to show up for a summit planning meeting with the White House negotiating team in Singapore.
• Last week, North Korea abruptly pulled out of planned talks with South Korea over routine U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.
• The North Koreans are showing signs that Kim is skittish about logistics. The new problems include concerns about Kim’s security while in Singapore and whether the North Korean president’s plane would have sufficient access to fuel to make the 6,000-mile round trip flight.
• Kim is reportedly expressing concern that the trip could open him up to the possibility of a military coup at home in his absence.
• The North Koreans, particularly in the wake of the scuttled Iran deal, have expressed concerns about the longevity of any U.S. security guarantee.
What does that all mean? It’s too soon to tell, but the change in atmosphere has Trump backpedaling and lowering expectations. “I don’t want to waste a lot of time, and I’m sure he doesn’t want to waste a lot of time. So there’s a very substantial chance that it won’t work out,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office before a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. “That doesn’t mean it won’t work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12th.”
In the end, perhaps the greatest sign the talks will continue has more to do with something that hasn’t changed at all over the past three weeks: who’s in the White House. What coaxed Pyongyang out of its nuclear shell in the first place? It’s seems unlikely it’s historic strength exhibited by the Trump administration, as so often hypothesized by Trump allies, but rather unique weakness. In the end, the ability to negotiate with an historically erratic and dysfunctional White House that, crucially, exists outside the normal power structure of American state decision-making might make the chance to cut a deal with Trump simply too good to pass up. Which is why we’re even talking about this and gotten this far in the first place. The feeling in Pyongyang could well be that the Washington orthodoxy on North Korea manifested in any other administration would be far tougher on North Korea at the negotiating table than an inexperienced president operating almost completely outside of it in search of a win he can tweet about.