You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Kim Jong Un’s canny strategy to confound Trump.

A mural by graffiti artists @welinoo, @balstroem and @sorenarildsen (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Three and a half weeks ago, after North Korea announced it would be shutting down its nuclear tests, New Republic contributor Jon Wolfsthal cautioned not to celebrate President Donald Trump’s diplomatic victory just yet. Now, that analysis is looking remarkably prescient.

After multiple goodwill signals, including North Korea’s release of three American hostages last week, Kim on Wednesday reportedly startled Trump administration officials by threatening to call off the planned talks if the U.S. insisted that North Korea unilaterally abandon its nuclear program.

Last month, Wolfsthal considered the potential logic to Kim’s actions: While it’s possible the North Korean dictator suddenly decided to pursue peace, more likely he was taking advantage of South Korea’s alarm at President Trump’s bellicose language throughout the winter.

South Korean officials and public began to worry more about the United States launching an attack than about Pyongyang, a remarkable sea change in opinion. Thus began Kim’s seduction of the South. Kim agreed to a joint Democratic People’s Republic of Korea-Republic of Korea team for the Pyeongchang Olympics, and then sent his sister and the DPRK Cheer Team to attend the opening ceremonies. Since then, Kim has played the more reasonable negotiating partner ...

The reality, Wolfsthal wrote, was that any kind of lasting agreement with North Korea would take months to negotiate and years to implement. If America, led by an impatient president, walks away in frustration, then North Korea can “paint the United States as the unreasonable party.” By raising American expectations and then engaging in periodic obstructionism, Kim could be setting the talks up to fail. If the administration takes the bait, Wolfsthal argued, that would suit Kim just fine.