With Snap ‘Yes’ in Oval Office, Trump Gambles on North Korea
Mr. Trump brushed them off. I get it, I get it, he said.
Where others see flashing yellow lights and slow down, Mr. Trump speeds up. And just like that, in the course of 45 minutes in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump threw aside caution and dispensed with decades of convention to embark on a daring, high-wire diplomatic gambit aimed at resolving one of the world’s most intractable standoffs.
The story of how this came about, assembled through interviews with officials and analysts from the United States, South Korea, Japan and China, is a case study in international relations in the Trump era. A president with no prior foreign policy experience takes on a festering conflict that has vexed the world for years with a blend of impulse and improvisation, and with no certain outcome. One moment, he is hurling playground insults and threatening nuclear war, the next he is offering the validation of a presidential meeting.
Whether the high-stakes gamble ultimately pays off, no one can know. Given two unpredictable and highly combustible leaders, it seems just as likely that the meeting will never take place. If it does occur, the challenges are so steep, the gulf so wide and the history so fraught with misunderstanding, suspicion and broken promises that the prospect of an enduring resolution to the impasse seems remote.
But Mr. Trump has staked his reputation as a deal maker on the presumption that he can personally achieve what no other president has before him.
A Thorny Road
The path to a possible meeting led through a thicket of hostility and feints.
Throughout his first year in office, Mr. Trump ratcheted up economic sanctions while rattling his nuclear saber at “Little Rocket Man” and threatening to “totally destroy North Korea.”
Mr. Kim could match the president he called “the mentally deranged U.S. dotard” bombast for bombast. In a New Year’s Day speech, he said he had “a nuclear button on the desk” that could launch missiles capable of reaching the United States. Mr. Trump responded with a tweet saying that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his.”
But South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, focused on the other part of Mr. Kim’s speech, when he declared that he would send athletes to the Winter Olympics, which would be held the next month in South Korea. A flurry of negotiations ensued at Panmunjom, the “truce village” inside the Korean demilitarized zone, that, by the standards of inter-Korean talks, went unusually well.
For the opening ceremony, on Feb. 9, Mr. Kim sent his sister, Kim Yo-jong, while Mr. Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence. The vice president was told of a possible meeting with North Korean officials at the Games if he would tone down his message, not talk about sanctions, not meet with defectors and not bring along Fred Warmbier, whose son, Otto, an American student, died soon after being released from captivity in North Korea.