The sporadic romance between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is on again.
True, there is the occasional hiccup, as there was when the U.S. called on the United Nations to continue enforcing economic sanctions against the Kim regime. North Korea responded by accusing the U.S. of being “hell-bent on hostile acts.”
But in the grand scheme of things, this amounted to a lover’s tiff. Kim and Trump are still basking in the warm glow of their historic recent meeting in the demilitarized zone that straddles the border between North and South Korea.
It marked the first time a sitting U.S. president had ever set foot inside North Korea.
The significance of this cannot be overestimated. By walking just a few yards across the border, Trump bestowed a symbolic legitimacy upon the North Korean regime that it has long sought, but never before achieved.
Where do matters go from here? Talks between the two nations are to resume. According to the New York Times, the Trump administration is once again working on a phased negotiating strategy — that is to say, offering to ease some economic sanctions against the North in return for some movement toward nuclear disarmament.
That had been the initial U.S. strategy in the lead-up to this year’s Hanoi summit. Both Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were reportedly expecting Trump to offer some sanctions relief there.
But in the end, the U.S. president was convinced by hawks in his administration, notably national security adviser John Bolton, to return to America’s standard maximalist position: All sanctions would be kept in place until the North eliminated its entire nuclear capability.
The hawks knew Kim couldn’t accept that and he didn’t. The Hanoi summit came to an abrupt end.
Tellingly, Bolton did not attend the get-together on the Korean border. He apparently had important business to conduct in Mongolia.
Trump has said there will be another summit. He has even mused about inviting Kim to Washington.
Whether there will be any progress made is unclear. Trump could again fall victim to what analyst Daniel DePetris calls Washington’s “conventional but profoundly misguided belief: There should be no sanctions relief or normalization of any kind absent Pyongyang’s final, fully verified denuclearization.”
What may prevent Trump from falling into the trap of conventional wisdom over the North Korean question is his own overweening ego. He is convinced he knows better than the so-called experts. Strangely enough, in this case, he may not be entirely wrong.
At the same time, he is desperate to go down in history — or at least into the next election campaign — as the president who solved the North Korean problem.
Yet by now, he must know that even under the pressure of sanctions, Kim will never entirely give up a nuclear arsenal that he has spent so much time and money amassing.
That leaves two choices: war or some kind of compromise. Currently, Trump is ruling out war.
As the fitful relationship between these two co-joined leaders plays itself out, we shall see how willing he is to compromise.
Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.