It’s Not Personal. It’s Just Diplomacy.
North Korea is trying to make the nuclear talks all about Trump and Kim. But history shows that professionals must lay the groundwork first.
For nearly a year since his historic meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, U.S. President Donald Trump has been playing to the North Korean leader’s vanity, suggesting that Kim could be a “great leader” whose country could have “a tremendous future” if only he gives up his nukes. On Friday Pyongyang returned the favor, hinting that only Trump can save the stalled negotiations—thanks to his “mysteriously wonderful” chemistry with Kim.
Speaking with reporters in Pyongyang, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui effectively dismissed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton as obstructionist, saying they’ve created an “atmosphere of hostility and mistrust” that derailed Trump’s second round of talks in Hanoi last month. She warned that Kim could soon resume nuclear and missile tests but added that relations between the president and Kim were “still good.”
Her comments portend a possible serious setback in nuclear talks—but they also showcase North Korea’s developing strategy of lavishing praise on a president whose public posturing is often said to be driven by ego and vanity.
Can Pyongyang’s personal plea work? True, Trump’s character is unique among U.S. presidents, and he appears to have staked a final deal with North Korea on his personal rapport with Kim—even declaring last June, after the Singapore summit, that he’d solved the issue and there was “no longer a nuclear threat.” Thus Trump has a lot vested in success, and some experts fear he will be tempted to make concessions to Kim that, in the end, will expose Washington to criticism that it ceded a partial nuclear capability to Pyongyang.
And that, in sum, is the risk of personal diplomacy. While personality has often played a role in high-stakes diplomatic negotiations in the past—for better or worse—experts say successful negotiations depend just as much on professionals who carefully prepare the groundwork.
The history of high-level diplomacy based on personal relationships is mixed at best. Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, for example, developed a personal rapport that culminated at the conference in Yalta, when FDR (according to his critics) gave away too much of Eastern Europe, creating a post-World War II map that defined the battle lines of the Cold War. On the other hand, the chemistry between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong, building on the personal relationship between Henry Kissinger and Chinese No. 2 Zhao Enlai, helped to completely transform the U.S.-China relationship and the Cold War balance of power.
Kissinger was for decades the face of personal diplomacy, for example developing a relationship with Egyptian leader Anwar al-Sadat that some historians believe led directly to Cairo’s historic rapprochement with Israel. President Jimmy Carter later built on that by bringing Sadat and Israeli PM Menachem Begin together at Camp David. And as Carter later described it, those talks were on the verge of failing until he made a personal connection with Begin, going to his cabin and presenting him with a set of autographed photos for the Israeli leader’s grandchildren. That brought tears to Begin’s eyes and, according to Carter, prompted him to sign.
Veteran diplomats are nonetheless torn on whether and when personal rapport can make or break high-wire diplomatic negotiations. “Personal relations are not trivial. They do make a difference all the time,” said Daniel Fried, a former longtime career diplomat who occupied senior posts in the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and (briefly) Trump administrations. But Fried cautioned that these relationships matter “at the margins” of negotiations, and no amount of personal rapport can push a leader to drastically alter national policies on their own.
“George W. Bush established good personal relations with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I was there. They got along well,” said Fried, who served as Bush’s top State Department envoy for Europe and Eurasia from 2005 to 2009. But Bush and Putin couldn’t translate their strong personal relationship into more constructive U.S.-Russia ties, which have plunged to a low point since the end of the Cold War.
Nicholas Burns, a former senior State Department official under both Democratic and Republican administrations, said that before leaders step in, lower-level diplomats must usually do the grunt work of negotiating the particulars of any effective agreement. “I think it’s important to remember that FDR had Harry Hopkins, Richard Nixon had Henry Kissinger and George H.W. Bush had Jim Baker,” Burns said. “Presidents can appear at summits but they rarely have the time to be the primary conduit to another nation, adversary or ally.”
Kenneth Adelman, who served as a senior arms-control advisor to President Ronald Reagan during the critical summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980’s, agreed. “I think it’s nice they have good personal relationship but it doesn’t really help solve much of anything,” he said. “The magic of the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship was based on, No. 1, a lot of the groundwork that had been laid. We’d been dealing with arms reductions for six years by the time of Reykjavik. … It was more an organizational endeavor than a personal one.”
Even so, it may be hard to use past cases as a blueprint for the ongoing U.S. talks with North Korea, which are unique in many respects. Unlike past efforts with Pyongyang, these negotiations have been driven from the top down by an impulsive president who’s never done diplomacy before and a young, untested and mercurial North Korean dictator.
Some experts say there’s no clear track record of how Kim’s personal relationship with world leaders can change North Korea’s policy, simply because the leader of the Hermit Kingdom, long an international pariah, meets so few of them.
“Leaders can change the whole trajectory of bilateral ties … but this is the first time we have seen Kim directly interact with the president,” said Jung Pak, a former senior CIA official and Asia scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Regardless, North Korea still appears eager to deal with Trump, even as they bash the top aides around him.
“There’s been a pretty consistent pattern in the last year or so of praising Trump, or specifically not criticizing him,” said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank. “They see Trump as more likely to offer concessions.”
“What the North Koreans said is so transparently false and hypocritical,” said Burns, the former diplomat. “They’ve rarely made their leaders available as they negotiated with the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations over the years. They made us deal with North Korean diplomats in New York.” He added: “This is obviously an attempt by the North Koreans to get around the tough negotiators, in this case Pompeo and [Trump’s North Korea envoy] Steve Biegun, and get to a president who is susceptible to flattery and charm, which he is.”
Klingner saw Choe’s remarks as a “low caliber shot across the bow” as both Washington and Pyongyang regroup and gauge how to move forward with negotiations. “Both sides are trying to pressure the other while not burning the diplomatic bridges.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer