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Trump’s Gamble Hits Reality Check in North Korea Negotiations

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The president had sought to deal with Kim Jong-un the same way he had handled real estate negotiations — with threats and flattery. It didn’t work.
WASHINGTON — President Trump attempted a revolutionary approach to North Korea — a gamble that negotiating prowess and deal-making charm in a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un could accomplish what no American president or diplomat had dared to attempt in the 65 years since an uneasy armistice settled over the Korean Peninsula.
It was a bold and innovative approach, and one worth trying, to take on the related goals of a peace treaty and eradicating the North’s now-substantial nuclear arsenal.
The fact that it fell on Thursday before getting out of the starting gate, though, underscored how little the two men understood about each other, or how their words and maximalist demands were resonating in Washington and Pyongyang.
Mr. Trump approached the North Korean leader as if he was a competing property developer haggling over a prized asset — and assumed that, in the end, Mr. Kim would be willing to give it all up for the promise of future prosperity. So he started with threats of “fire and fury,’’ then turned to surprise initiatives, then gratuitous flattery of one of the world’s more brutal dictators.
“He will be safe, he will be happy, his country will be rich,” Mr. Trump said of the North Korean leader on Tuesday, as he met again with Moon Jae-in, the over-optimistic South Korean president whose national security adviser predicted, that same day, it was “99.9 percent” sure that the summit meeting in Singapore would go ahead.
But it was already becoming clear to Mr. Trump and his team that the techniques involved in negotiating real estate don’t translate easily into negotiations over nuclear weapons.
Mr. Kim needs money, investment and technology for sure. But more than that, he needs to convince North Korea’s elites that he has not traded away the only form of security in his sole control — the nuclear patrimony of his father and his grandfather.
“For them, ‘getting rich’ is a secondary consideration,’’ said William Perry, the former secretary of defense and one of the last people to negotiate with the North over peace treaties, nuclear disarmament and missiles — in 1999, when he was sent out as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy. “If I learned anything dealing with them, it’s that their security is pre-eminent. They know we have the capability to defeat them, and they believe we have the intent to do so.’’
“And the only way to address that,” Mr. Perry, now 90, said this week in Palo Alto as the North Koreans were issuing their latest threats, “is with a step-by-step process, exactly the approach Trump said he did not want to take.”
Other complications prevented the talks from making it far enough to even discuss those issues. As the two leaders circled each other over what long-range goals they would agree to in Singapore, it became increasingly clear there were forces at work in both capitals that had a strong interest in failure.
The creators of North Korea’s nuclear and missile forces are the country’s true elite, celebrated as the heroes who keep America at bay. To lose their arsenal is to lose their status and influence.
When Mr. Trump sent one of his deputy national security advisers to Singapore a week ago for a prearranged meeting to work out summit logistics, the North Koreans stood him up. In the past week, they did not answer the phone, a senior administration official told reporters Thursday afternoon.
The North has its own list of complaints. After Mr. Trump accepted Mr. Kim’s offer to meet face-to-face, he replaced his national security adviser with John R. Bolton, who just a few months ago published an essay entitled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First,’’ an ode to pre-empting Pyongyang — no matter what it promised about the future.
Once he ensconced himself in the West Wing, Mr. Bolton began talking publicly about the “the Libyan model’’ of turning over nuclear weapons, a reference to a deal he helped design in 2003 in which Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi turned over a nascent nuclear program in return for exactly the kinds of economic lures Mr. Trump was talking about.
To the North Koreans, Mr. Bolton knew, the Libya example was shorthand for making a bad decision to unilaterally disarm. They have little doubt that if North Korean citizens rose to overthrow their government — as Libyan rebels did against Colonel Qaddafi in 2011 — Washington would be more than happy to help chase down the leadership.
None of this means the initiatives with North Korea are entirely dead. Mr. Trump carefully left open the door for Mr. Kim to “call me or write” if he decides to cease the threats of nuclear exchanges and wants to reschedule the summit.
But Mr. Trump also on Thursday could not resist echoing hi s tweet months ago about the size of the nuclear button on his desk: America’s nuclear capabilities “are so massive and powerful” that he should never be tempted to reach for them.
It may have been intended to intimidate. But it seems more likely to spur Mr. Kim to new demonstrations of his own capabilities to reach American cities with North Korean missiles.
In fact, the question about North Korea now is the same question that Washington is asking about Iran: What is their next chess move? Are they likely to escalate?
For now, the Iranians have indicated they are taking it slow. But history suggests that North Korea’s reaction to the end of negotiations is almost always to create a crisis — and see if that, in turn, forces the United States back to the table.
When the “Agreed Framework” with the Clinton administration collapsed — in part because of North Korean cheating, in part because of the United States’ lack of interest in moving toward reconciliation — Mr. Kim’s father moved to the country’s first nuclear tests.
When accords were scuttled at the end of the Bush administration, the North tested a new president, Barack Obama, with a series of larger nuclear tests and then a race to build intercontinental missiles.
Even before he came to office, Mr. Trump complained — accurately — that the incremental approaches pursued by his predecessors had failed.
He inherited a North Korea that had exploited America’s distraction during Iraq, Afghanistan and the Iran negotiations, and managed to build 20 to 60 nuclear weapons. The North had paid almost no price. So Mr. Trump did what he learned to do in the New York real estate market: Make maximalist demands, inflict pain and then begin a negotiation.
But his “fire and fury’’ approach resulted in reactions he had never seen in the private market. Mr. Moon became so concerned that a new, famously volatile American president could trip into a war on the Korean Peninsula, that he raced to wrap Mr. Trump into a negotiation that would make it difficult for the United States to launch the kind of pre-emptive attack Mr. Bolton had advocated.
Mr. Moon then showered Mr. Trump with effusive praise, even to the point of endorsing the premature talk about Nobel Peace Prizes.
“Moon’s role is what is entirely new this time,’’ Mr. Perry noted, hours before the summit planning fell apart. The South Korean president saw himself as the essential go-between, the central player in coaxing both sides back on track when moments of crisis — like this one — arise.

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