This story is over 5 years old.


Meeting Kim Jong Un could make Trump a genius negotiator or another Dennis Rodman

The diplomat who briefed Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter before their visits to North Korea shares his thoughts on Trump’s plan.

President Trump has agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un — a development that nobody would have predicted just a few months ago when the two leaders were trading insults and threatening each other with potential nuclear war.

The summit is expected to happen sometime before the end of May, and the rushed timeline leaves many questions: How is this going to work? What’s going to be on the negotiating table? Is this going to massively backfire?


If anyone has those answers, it might be Daniel Russel, a former State Department official who spent most of his career dealing with North Korea. Russel last served as the Obama administration's top diplomat in East Asia, and before that he helped guide two former presidents through the process of visiting Pyongyang.

The first was Jimmy Carter’s controversial 1994 trip to meet with Kim Jong Un’s grandfather when tensions were running high with the U.S. Carter secured a deal that defused the crisis, promising aid in exchange for a nuclear freeze, but it rankled the Clinton administration in leaving them out of the loop. In 2009, Clinton met with Kim Jong Un’s father to negotiate the release of two journalists. Russel briefed them both before their respective meetings.

Russel left his job at the State Department last March to join the Asia Society Policy Institute as Diplomat in Residence. We caught up with him Friday to talk about Trump’s plan. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

VICE News: Is Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un a good idea?

Daniel Russel: I think it’s regarded by half the world as a sort of impetuous hail Mary play, and by the other half of the world as potentially cutting through the Gordian knot of impasse on the Korean nuclear issue. Everybody hopes a summit might succeed in producing a breakthrough, but all the folks who have been paying attention over the years and have looked at the ups and downs of previous efforts are, I think, pretty skeptical.


Why haven't previous U.S. presidents visited North Korea or met the North Korean leader?

On the one hand, putting forward the president of the United States as the problem solver to hold a summit with an adversary is usually the culmination of a considerable and rigorous diplomatic process, not the first step.

The things you’d want a president past or present to know going in include the history of the previous efforts, including not just what we think happened but what the North Koreans think happened, how they remember it. You want them to understand the vocabulary — when the North Koreans says this, what they really mean is that. When they talk about hostile policy, that’s really code for U.S. military presence in South Korea.

“I’m not sure we’re going to see President Trump cracking the books, so to speak.”

You want to lay out, here’s what Kim wants, here’s what he’s aiming for. Conversely, on the things the U.S. might have to offer, you want the president to bear in mind that some things might not be as appealing or credible to the North Koreans as we think. In particular because they don’t trust us.

There’s a lot that we want a president to be familiar with and understand in getting ready for an engagement of this magnitude. Of course, each president has his or her own style. I’m not sure we’re going to see President Trump cracking the books, so to speak.

What type of planning does it take to pull something like this off? What kind of preparation usually has to happen?


There’s just nothing normal about this. This is not an ordinary approach. I don’t believe we have seen the North Koreans themselves go on record yet articulating an offer or making it clear what it is they're proposing. We’re getting all this secondhand through the South Koreans, which is extremely unusual. The fact that a momentous policy decision was announced at the White House by the national security adviser — not the national security adviser of the United States but the national security adviser of another country — brings home that this is not really usual.

North Korea’s offers invariably come with some significant caveats and some asterisks, some hidden and some in plain sight. It’s still very, very, early. Nothing has been offered yet other than secondhand ambiguities. We don’t want to fall victim to cynicism, we don’t want to pass up an opportunity to transform the relationship, but we also don’t want to fall victim to a gambit to relieve pressure on the North Korean regime.

President Trump has made clear again and again and again that some vague or some unenforceable proposal to maybe kinda sorta someday denuclearize by North Korea is just not going to cut it. It’s up to him if he meets with Kim Jong Un to try to get an agreement to try to get a process going that can lead to the verifiable denuclearization, the irreversible denuclearization, that the U.S. has insisted on.


“Just having a meeting with Kim Jong Un, hey, that’s what Dennis Rodman did. I don’t think anything lasting or positive came out of that.”

How will Trump likely get briefed or coached before for his meeting with Kim Jong Un?

This runs along the grain of the president’s instincts: The first principle here is to maintain good communications and strong unity between Washington and Seoul and also our important ally and partner in Japan, as well as to ensure the Chinese and for that matter the Russians don’t act as spoilers. Unity and coordination is job number one.

Second, although this may run against the grain of his instincts, I would walk him through what appear to be the most analogous, the most relevant precedent. That is Jimmy Carter acting against the wishes of the incumbent president, in a moment of tremendous friction, tension, and threats. There were voices calling for military action against North Korea. North Korea was upping its own threats. He went to North Korea to test the proposition that he could help North Korea save face through a face-to-face meeting in which he showed respect and undertook to use his personal and diplomatic skills on a one-on-one basis to defuse the situation.

The fact of the matter is he got a deal at that point. It was a modest deal where both sides agreed to hit the pause button then to engage in a process of serious negotiations. The agreed-upon framework halted the nuclear program and imposed inspections and verification on the North Koreans in exchange for a certain amount of economic assistance.


The price the North Koreans are likely to demand for freezing their program — let alone rolling it back — is likely to have gone up since then. And by the same token, given the trajectory of broken promises by the North, the U.S. is almost certainly going to insist on a fairly instructive verification arrangement, which is all to say this is not going to be easy.

Do you think North Korea is actually serious about giving up its nuclear weapons? What would the U.S. have to give up to get that?

My source on North Korea’s true intentions is Kim Jong Un. On January 1 in his New Year’s Day statement, the same statement where he dangled the Olympic olive branch with the proposal for a joint team and a North-South meeting, he made it very, very clear that he remained committed [to nuclear weapons], that he would maintain his sword and shield and keep his arsenal.

We haven't heard anything from Kim Jong Un that contradicts that commitment. The pattern he’s demonstrated, his behavior and statement, certainly suggest he’s resolute in the view that he has a right to nuclear weapons, and at most the day may come when as two legitimate, full-fledged nuclear powers, the U.S. and DPRK could sit down to discuss mutual arms reduction and mutual controls.

The hypothesis that one ought to be operating on is that the North Korean gambit aims at trying to relieve some of the sanctions pressure in the short term. Certainly, that positions North Korea better than now to open some sort of peaceful path forward to see what the U.S., South Koreans, and others might be willing to offer in exchange for a temporary period of peace and quiet.


Once they’ve calculated they’re not going to get any more through a charm offensive and once their missile scientists come back and say, ‘OK, we’re ready to conduct the next round of ballistic missile launches to test our next generation of ICBMs, then it’s back to the provocation phase we’ve seen before. That’s been the traditional North Korean pattern.

Is there a chance that Trump’s unusual style could actually work here?

That’s a question that we’ll only be able to offer an answer to in retrospect. We really simply don’t know. As a general matter, inconsistency and unpredictability, those are qualities that come in handy for a street fighter or a guerrilla. Seldom are they the attributes you want to see in a superpower.

Will we in retrospect judge that the zig-zags from “Little Rocket Man is going to be totally destroyed” to “He’s a smart cookie and I think we have good chemistry,” from “fire and fury” to “OK, I’ll meet him and I’ll meet him next month,” are we going to conclude that was the secret sauce that solved the North Korean nuclear problem? I just don’t know.

Cover image: A woman walks by a huge screen showing U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, in Tokyo, Friday, March 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)