Analysis

The Real Lessons of the Trump-Kim Love Letters

What the 27 mostly unpublished missives tell us about the future of U.S.-North Korean diplomacy.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un
Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

There is probably no other bilateral relationship today where letter writing between two countries’ leaders has played such a dramatic role as that between North Korea and the United States. The 27 letters exchanged between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-U.S. President Donald Trump between April 2018 and August 2019—characterized as “beautiful letters” by Trump—contained tactical feints, unctuous flattery, and psychological ploys that have marked exchanges of leaders of all stripes and stations throughout history. In this case, they also contained the core perceptions and misperceptions of how each thought to move—and move the other—from decades of U.S.-North Korean hostility to something approaching more normal or at least stable relations between their two vastly different countries.

Of course, the hoped-for reconciliation and nuclear disarmament did not come to pass.

There has now been a hiatus in U.S.-North Korea engagement for almost two years, largely at Pyongyang’s insistence. Nothing is forever, however, and the two sides will sooner or later get back to negotiations. Signals will pulse once again through the usual channels, and the importance of careful, deliberate messages between the two countries’ leaders will return to the fore.

There is probably no other bilateral relationship today where letter writing between two countries’ leaders has played such a dramatic role as that between North Korea and the United States. The 27 letters exchanged between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-U.S. President Donald Trump between April 2018 and August 2019—characterized as “beautiful letters” by Trump—contained tactical feints, unctuous flattery, and psychological ploys that have marked exchanges of leaders of all stripes and stations throughout history. In this case, they also contained the core perceptions and misperceptions of how each thought to move—and move the other—from decades of U.S.-North Korean hostility to something approaching more normal or at least stable relations between their two vastly different countries.

Of course, the hoped-for reconciliation and nuclear disarmament did not come to pass.

There has now been a hiatus in U.S.-North Korea engagement for almost two years, largely at Pyongyang’s insistence. Nothing is forever, however, and the two sides will sooner or later get back to negotiations. Signals will pulse once again through the usual channels, and the importance of careful, deliberate messages between the two countries’ leaders will return to the fore.

A letter from Donald Trump to Kim Jong Un

In a letter from then-U.S. President Donald Trump to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dated May 24, 2018, Trump announces that the United States is pulling out of its planned summit with North Korea in Singapore. White House

When correspondence between the U.S. president and the North Korean leader does start up again, it will be important to understand what has gone through that channel before and how it affected the outcome of diplomacy. With access to the full file of letters that Bob Woodward excerpted in his book about the Trump presidency, Rage, that is what I set out to do. (Woodward, who had access to the original letters while researching his book, was not permitted to make copies or take photos of them. He read the letters into his tape recorder and later transcribed them. It is these transcriptions, most of which have never been published, that are quoted below.)

If the 27 letters exchanged between Trump and Kim have received only scant attention, that’s due in part to the misconception among journalists and pundits that their exchange was nonsubstantive and even risible. When one actually reads them, however, they give the opposite impression. By no means are they simple love letters. In their totality, they are a highly illuminating reflection of the fundamental misperceptions between the two sides. As a close read makes clear, it was the letters, perhaps more than any other aspect of diplomacy and statecraft, that set the stage for the train wreck that was the 2019 Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi and the subsequent breakdown of communication.

The first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June 2018 had laid out a number of goals: establishing new relations between the two countries and building a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula. The joint statement’s lofty formulations were essentially starting points from which the two sides could address long-standing issues. Of key importance to Washington was that Kim committed to “work toward” the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Through the remainder of 2018 and into 2019, the two leaders kept in touch as they wrestled with how to turn the pledges they made in Singapore into action. From the first letter to Kim after Singapore, Trump focused on denuclearization—no surprise, as getting North Korea to renounce nuclear weapons has been a primary U.S. goal for decades. What is surprising is that Trump’s letters were all but silent on what steps the United States was prepared to take in return. Whether that was deliberate or through careless inadvertence, it was a mistake. Kim saw it and sent warning after warning that the road to denuclearization could only come through practical, synchronous steps that would also address North Korea’s own security concerns. This would remain the heart of the problem: Kim would acknowledge the central U.S. concern of denuclearization, while Trump’s letters almost completely ignored North Korea’s own essential goals, including a new relationship that would relieve the pressure—including from economic sanctions—that Kim believed stood in the way of his plans for the country’s development.

On July 3, 2018, Trump informed Kim by letter that he was sending U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang, emphasizing that “most importantly,” Pompeo was under his “instructions” to find agreement on “taking the first major steps toward the final, fully verified denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.” This no doubt set off warning bells in Pyongyang. Right from the start, without any hint of what Washington might be prepared to pledge in return, Trump was focusing on denuclearization.

In his reply on July 6, Kim took the high road, expressing the wish that his “trust and confidence” in Trump would be “further strengthened” in the “future process of taking practical actions.” With that innocent-sounding phrase, Kim was reminding Trump of the firmly held North Korean position that denuclearization could only happen gradually and in synch with “practical actions” taken by the United States. Kim made no explicit reference to specific pledges by either side, however, and did not directly challenge Trump’s characterization of the importance of denuclearization.

Pompeo’s meeting in Pyongyang went badly. Differences over substance and sequence were so deep that the North Korean foreign ministry—certainly with Kim’s approval and probably at his direction—issued a statement immediately after the talks accusing the United States of bringing a “unilateral and brigandish demand for denuclearization” while “putting off to the far back even the issue of the end of war declaration, which has already been agreed upon” and “not even mentioning the issue of building a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” An end of war declaration was an “issue that Trump had shown more eagerness for even during the [North Korea-U.S.] summit talks,” the statement continued.

A letter from Kim Jong Un to Donald Trump

A letter from Kim to Trump, in Korean at left and translated to English at right, dated July 6, 2018. DOUGLAS CURRAN/AFP via Getty Images

At the end of July, Kim sent another letter to Trump. It did not repeat the foreign ministry’s charges. Rather, in gingerly fashion, Kim merely noted the “lack of anticipated declaration on the termination of war” in the negotiations so far.

Trump replied on Aug. 2, not acknowledging the issue of the declaration but once again going right to denuclearization: “It is now time to make progress on the other commitments we made, including complete denuclearization.” Some in the North might have chewed over the use of “we” while unmistakably referring to only one side’s goal.

On Sept. 6, after the sudden cancellation of a planned second visit by Pompeo, Kim sent his most crucial letter during the entire exchange. Ignoring who canceled the visit or why, he expresses—with razor-keen clarity—his views on the U.S. secretary of state: “It is my thought that instead of having a war of words on issues that divide our two sides with Secretary Pompeo, who it is difficult for me to think can fully represent Your Excellency’s mind, it would be more constructive to meet in person with Your Excellency, who [is] endowed with an outstanding political sense, and have an in-depth exchange of views on important issues including the denuclearization.”

This might have been meant as an early signal that any “in-depth exchange” on the nuclear issue would be reserved to direct talks between Kim and Trump. This practice of reserving the most important or sensitive discussions for a face-to-face summit was not unusual. In November 2000 in Kuala Lumpur, the North Korean delegation would not discuss the missile issue with its U.S. counterpart, even though the latter had been sent to the Malaysian capital for the exact purpose of resolving as much of that issue as possible in advance of any summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and U.S. President Bill Clinton.

In the September letter, Kim says he is prepared to fully implement the Singapore joint statement and that “in addition to the steps that we have taken up front, we are willing to take further meaningful steps one at a time in a phased manner, such as the complete shutdown of the Nuclear Weapons Institute or the Satellite Launch District and the irreversible closure of the nuclear materials production facility [at Yongbyon].” However, “in order for us to sustain the momentum … we need to feel some changes in our surroundings, even a little, to prove that the effort[s] we make are by no means in vain.” At this point, Kim was telling Trump plainly what had been a constant North Korean position ever since the Agreed Framework negotiations in 1993 and 1994: Pyongyang’s concessions would have to be modestly veiled by some sort of U.S. move that could be portrayed as addressing North Korean concerns. Kim then reemphasizes that denuclearization must proceed “on the principle of phased, synchronized action.” He goes on: “If our goodwill and sincere efforts are properly appreciated and the United States [takes] more substantive steps and actions in a phased manner, significant progress will be made in the issue of denuclearization.” Here, Kim was telling Trump directly that specific, important North Korean moves were on the table—and shutting down the Nuclear Weapons Institute, an instrumental part of the country’s nuclear weapons program, would be quite important. These were, however, contingent on unspecified “substantive steps” by Washington. In his subsequent messages, Trump never acknowledges or probes Kim’s negotiating stance. Nor is there evidence that Kim’s offering up the Nuclear Weapons Institute even registered in Washington.

At the summit between North and South Korea later in September, Kim echoed to South Korean President Moon Jae-in what he had told Trump in his letter, laying out in detail what Pyongyang was prepared to offer on the nuclear issue, as well as his intense frustration at not seeing a positive response from Washington. Shortly after the summit ended, Kim fired off another missive to Trump, complaining that the “excessive interest President Moon is showing … in our matter is unnecessary.” He goes on to say that “many people are skeptical about the current status and the prospects of the relations between our countries [and] about our ideas of resolving the issue of denuclearization in the future. I, together with Your Excellency, will definitely prove them wrong.” Here, Kim leaves open whether “many people” refers to those in Washington or in Pyongyang. While it may be difficult to believe Kim faced open skepticism in Pyongyang over his initiative toward Washington—or would admit it to the U.S. president if he did—this is a theme that surfaced more than once in Kim’s correspondence. Skepticism over the negotiations also appears in various forms in the North Korean media throughout this period.

By December, the two sides were seriously discussing the possibility of a second summit, focusing especially on a possible choice of venue given Kim’s avoidance of traveling by air or sea. Kim sent a message on Dec. 25 to discuss the venue. In the letter, he says he has “already instructed” his “closest and most trusted colleagues” to speed up the process. He expresses worry that it “may not reflect positively on us should both sides appear to stubbornly insist on our respective positions” regarding the location. His solution: that the two sides “urgently hold senior-level contact.” At first glance, this may appear to be a nonsubstantive message dealing with mundane logistical matters, but it is actually signaling Kim’s deep interest in moving to a second summit and not allowing the process to be delayed or sidetracked.

On Jan. 18, 2019, after a ranking North Korean envoy visited Washington to discuss the upcoming second summit in Hanoi, Trump wrote a brief note to Kim: “A great meeting and message. I will see you soon.” Incredibly, Trump closes with “Your friend.” Trump’s next note, on Feb. 19, just days before the Hanoi meeting, is even less formal or serious. Written entirely by hand, it says, “I look forward to seeing you next week. It will be great. Best wishes.”

The second summit turned out to be anything but “great.” It was a failure with long-lasting consequences, though the U.S. side did not realize at the time how badly Kim would react. Trump did what he could before leaving Hanoi to assure Kim that the breakdown was only temporary and that they could meet again. In a last-minute move, Kim sent out a senior foreign ministry official to clarify his offer to shut down Yongbyon—that he meant the entire complex, not just part of it. It’s not clear whether the clarification would have helped. It was too late—Trump’s motorcade was already getting ready to leave.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un

Trump shakes hands with Kim following a meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on Feb. 27, 2019. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The next letter in the exchange comes from Trump on March 22, ostensibly on occasion of the “upcoming anniversary” of the birth of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean dynasty. “Upcoming” may have been seen by Kim as a stretch, since the April 15 birthday—commemorated as the Day of the Sun in North Korea—was still more than three weeks away. Trump writes that Kim has “carried forward” his grandfather’s vision and now has a “historic opportunity to fulfill [Kim Il Sung’s] dying wish—to achieve denuclearization.” That would likely have been read in Pyongyang as a crude attempt to get Kim back into the game by appealing to a presumed emotional bond to the sacred past. In a speech on April 12, Kim confirmed the breakdown of talks in Hanoi and gave a gloomy view of what the future would hold without a significant change in the U.S. approach. Although Kim’s remarks made clear that Trump’s latest attempt to restart the conversation went nowhere, the North Korean leader added: “But as President Trump keeps saying, the personal ties between me and him are not hostile like the relations between the two countries, and we still maintain excellent relations, as to be able to exchange letters asking about health anytime if we want.”

It probably hadn’t helped that in his March letter, Trump had devolved into what the North Koreans must have seen as tissue-thin psychological warfare—or a cheap negotiating ploy out of The Art of the Deal.

It probably hadn’t helped that in his March letter, Trump had devolved into what the North Koreans must have seen as tissue-thin psychological warfare—or a cheap negotiating ploy out of The Art of the Deal: “[Y]ou are my friend and always will be. Contrary to some media reports about our meeting, you and I have made tremendous progress.” If Kim didn’t laugh out loud at that line, then surely he was slack-jawed. “Although there is still a lot of work to do,” Trump continues, “I have great hope and expectation about what you and I can accomplish … if we remain committed to our shared goals.” Anyone in Pyongyang grasping at straws might have latched on to “our shared goals,” but they had all been burned by the previous exchange. In the sour mood following Hanoi, the optimists—if they existed—probably didn’t carry much weight.

Through May and early June, there were signs—typically obscure—in the North Korean media of a vigorous policy discussion, suggesting that the atmosphere might be slowly improving for another run at engaging Washington. On June 10, Kim used the excuse of the one-year anniversary of the Singapore summit on June 12 and Trump’s birthday on June 14 to send his first letter in five months. Trump would describe the letter to the media as “beautiful.” Much of the U.S. media covering the exchange was by now in a fully cynical mode and suggested that the message had no substance. To the contrary, it was another important letter. Kim writes: “Today’s reality is that without a new approach and the courage it takes, the prospects for resolution of the issue will only be bleak.” Although its substance seems negative, that formulation is essentially a come-hither signal with its reference to the possibility of a “new approach.” Kim ends his letter: “I believe the one day will come sooner or later when we sit down together to make great things happen, with the will to give another chance to our mutual trust.” Although not an explicit invitation to another meeting, this expression of hope meant that the door was cracking open again.

Trump answered Kim quickly and positively on June 12, finally—for the very first time—acknowledging the U.S. commitments made in Singapore: “[Y]ou committed to completely denuclearize, and I committed to provide security guarantees. We both committed to establish new relations for our two countries and to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” At last we are getting somewhere, they may have murmured in Pyongyang. The North Korean media quoted Kim as saying Trump’s letter was “excellent.”

Two weeks later, Trump invited Kim to meet in the Demilitarized Zone along the heavily fortified inter-Korean border with “no special agenda,” and Kim quickly accepted. The two leaders met on June 30, marking the first time a sitting U.S. president stepped on North Korean soil. “I never expected to see you in this place,” Kim told Trump in Korean. Among other things, the two sides agreed to convene expert working groups to move things forward. But whatever may have been possible to achieve as a result of this meeting proved impossible to sustain. A month later, on Aug. 5, in an unusually long letter of unrelenting woe, Kim laid out his concerns. He begins the missive by noting that he “remember[s] clearly” the promise he made to Trump for experts to resolve the outstanding issues. However, he says, “the current environment is different from that day.”

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un

Kim and Trump meet inside the Demilitarized Zone separating South and North Korea in Panmunjom on June 30, 2019. Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images/Getty Images

The problem, Kim writes, is the annual U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises that had been held in the wake of the summit. These “provocative combined military exercises” had taken place despite Kim’s belief that they “would either be canceled or postponed” ahead of “working-level negotiations where we would continue to discuss important matters.” Kim then asks, rhetorically, “Against whom [are] the combined military exercises taking place in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, who are they trying to block, and who are they intended to defeat and attack?” He answers his own question: “Conceptually and hypothetically, the main target of the war preparatory exercises is our own military. This is not our misunderstanding.”

Kim continues: “I do not understand the purpose of having these ‘war games’ that we consider as threatening at the time when we are looking ahead [to] this very important meeting. At present, it is very difficult for me and my people to understand your side’s and the South Korean authority’s decisions and actions. The most important cause of what your side considers the headache of ‘missile threats’ and nuclear problem is the military actions of your side and the South Korean military that threatens our safety. And until these elements are eliminated, no changed outcome can be anticipated.

“I am clearly offended, and I do not want to hide this feeling from you. I am really, very offended.”

“I am clearly offended, and I do not want to hide this feeling from you. I am really, very offended. At every opportunity after we met, you said there are no more artificial earthquakes [i.e., nuclear tests] and no objects flying in the sky [i.e., no missile tests].”

Kim continues: “In this vein, I have done more than I can at this present stage, very responsively and practically, in order to keep the trust we have. However, what has Your Excellency done, and what am I to explain to my people about what has changed since we met? Have actions been relaxed or any [of] my country’s external environments been improved? Have military exercises been stopped?”

“I do not wish to do anything to disappoint you anytime soon, nor do I plan to do so,” he adds. Then, in about as bald a statement from the North Korean leader as one could imagine, Kim writes: “If you do not think of our relationship as a stepping stone that only benefits you, then you would not make me look like an idiot that will only give without getting anything in return.

“My letter has gone long, but to state my main point, regrettably now is not the time to engage in working-level talks. It is not the right atmosphere in my country, and if we were to move forward with working-level talks now, our leadership would be viewed as strange by the outside world and by us as well.” In any case, “What kind of working-level talks could we possibly have? It obviously would not be about the sanctions relief, which I very much wanted, nor will it be about the location of our fourth summit talks.”

Finally, Kim gets to his bottom line: “To put it another way, we are not in a hurry. If this were like Hanoi, just a few months ago, when I held on to the dream of hastening the start of a better life, it would be different. But we are in a different situation, and we are not in a hurry.”

After this long lament from Kim, the correspondence between the two leaders appears to have ended.

Robert L. Carlin is a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. From 1989 to 2002, he was chief of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. Department of State and took part in U.S.-North Korean negotiations from 1992 to 2000.

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