7 Big Things to Understand About Trump’s Talks With North Korea

 In U.S.

Still, that only lasts until the talks themselves.


Three South Korean officials outside the White House on Thursday. From left, the National Intelligence Service chief, Suh Hoon; the national security director, Chung Eui-yong; and the ambassador to the United States, Cho Yoon-je.

Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency

2. Mismatched signals may have set up the talks to fail.

Usually, before high-level talks like these, both sides spend a long time telegraphing their expected outcomes.

Such signals serve as public commitments, both to the other side of the negotiation and to citizens back home. It’s a way for both sides to test one another’s demands and offers, reducing the risk of surprise or embarrassment.

That is not really how things have proceeded with the United States and North Korea. Mr. Trump has already committed to granting North Korea one of its most desired concessions: a high-level meeting between the heads of state.

In exchange, North Korea has not publicly committed to anything. It has, quite cannily, channeled its public communications through South Korea, making it easier to renege.

Further, Mr. Trump has declared “denuclearization” as his minimal acceptable outcome for talks, making it harder for him to accept a more modest (but more achievable!) outcome and costlier for him to walk away.

The table is now set in such a way that virtually any outcome is a win for North Korea, but only a very narrow and difficult range of outcomes will save the United States from an embarrassing failure.

The North Koreans can walk away more freely, while the Americans will be more desperate to come home with some sort of win. It’s a formulation that puts the Americans at significant disadvantage before talks even begin.


Meeting rooms that straddle the border between the two Koreas in the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

3. The sides do not agree on the point of talking.

It’s worth belaboring the costs of skipping the usual process of mutual public signaling.

South Korean officials have said that Mr. Kim is willing to enter talks for “denuclearization” — there’s that word again — which is perhaps why Mr. Trump seems to believe this will happen.

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