President Donald Trump's transactional approach to foreign policy assumes that everything has a price. The problem for him in his nuclear gamble with North Korea is that Kim Jong Un may not be buying.
In a blunt put-down Monday, North Korea rejected what a senior adviser to Kim called another "fruitless" one-on-one with Trump. It was the latest reminder that Trump's open-door policy for bargaining with authoritarians means those leaders can slam the door in his face.
"We are no longer interested in such talks that bring nothing to us," said Kim Kye Gwan, a veteran diplomat and Foreign Ministry adviser. "As we have got nothing in return, we will no longer gift the U.S. president with something he can brag about."
Trump had hinted on Sunday at a possible next summit with the North Korean leader as part of a foreign policy venture that represents Trump's boldest effort to remake U.S. diplomacy. Trump's offer to North Korea is explicit: Give up your nuclear weapons and receive sanctions relief that will allow you to become a regional economic powerhouse and vacation destination, complete with luxury hotels.
"Mr. Chairman, Joe Biden may be Sleepy and Very Slow, but he is not a 'rabid dog.' He is actually somewhat better than that, but I am the only one who can get you where you have to be," Trump wrote on Twitter. "You should act quickly, get the deal done. See you soon!"
That was a response to North Korea recently calling former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden a "rabid dog" who should be "beaten to death with a stick."
Between the lines, Trump was telling Kim not to try to run out the clock on negotiations Trump has fostered. The former New York real estate developer seemed to be conveying to Kim that a President Biden wouldn't cut a deal with North Korea and help him build the gleaming buildings and bustling streets depicted in a promotional video Trump played at his first meeting with Kim in Singapore last year.
As with Trump's negotiations or other dealings with China, Turkey, Iran and Russia, Kim appears to be testing Trump's resolve. In each case, authoritarian leaders or regimes have recently demonstrated diplomatic leverage over Trump, ignoring his carrots and sticks alike.
Trump has repeatedly predicted that a "Phase 1" trade deal with China was at the doorstep while he threatened further tariffs. China has balked anyway.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got a coveted White House meeting and public news conference alongside Trump last week, despite flouting U.S. warnings not to attack or imperil U.S.-allied forces in northern Syria all while also signing a deal to buy military equipment from Russia. Trump lifted punitive sanctions nonetheless
Iran spurned his offer of direct talks on the sidelines of the United Nations meeting in September. Russian President Vladimir Putin has benefited cost-free from both the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria and Trump's skeptical view of Ukraine as displayed during the current impeachment inquiry.
Trump publicly leaned on Ukraine to make a deal with Russia in its proxy war in eastern Ukraine. One witness in the impeachment inquiry testified last week that a Trump loyalist said he only cared about the "big things" in the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, defined as the pursuit of political favors rather than U.S. support for a democracy menaced by Russia.
But Trump has the most riding on North Korea. Pyongyang is hitting the brakes just as Trump faces not only impeachment but a reelection campaign in which he has hoped to show supporters that he can deliver a deal that eluded past presidents.
Trump is pursuing a "fool's errand" if he thinks he can persuade Kim to give up nuclear weapons that are his source of security and legitimacy, said Lawrence Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
Kim Kye Gwan's slap at Trump may reflect a calculation by the North Korean regime that Trump wants a deal more than North Korea needs to make one now, he said. "The North Korean regime may believe that the president is desperate enough for a deal that they have some leverage over him."
Kim is also backing his diplomatic snub with a display of military leverage. A day after the United States and ally South Korea shelved joint air drills as an inducement to Pyongyang to talk, North Korean media reported Monday that Kim had personally supervised his own nation's air force exercises.
"I see this as a good-faith effort by the United States and the Republic of Korea to enable peace," Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters about the decision to suspend exercises.
Although the hiatus represents an about-face for the Pentagon, Esper said it could "facilitate a political agreement - a deal, if you will - that leads to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
North Korea resumed short-range ballistic missile tests this year, despite the United States and South Korea scaling back military drills in a gesture of goodwill.
Trump has been hoping for a third summit with North Korea, ideally within about three months, to show that his bold effort to befriend and persuade Kim is working.
Kim had set a deadline of the end of this year for the experiment to show progress, and U.S. and other analysts worry that North Korea may return to testing longer-range missiles or nuclear devices next year.
Talks have been bogged down for months, with North Korea demanding relief from economic sanctions before any meaningful discussion of disarmament. The Trump administration has stuck to its dual approach that retains sanctions while offering free-flowing, direct leader-to-leader talks that traditional diplomacy would only reserve for the very end of a process.
Kim Kye Gwan's statement to the Korean-language website of the official Korean Central News Agency noted that he had read Trump's Twitter post before saying that despite the two leaders' previous meetings, "there has not been much improvement in relations with the United States."
North Korean state media has previously taken aim at members of the Trump administration it accused of blocking progress, but it has lately taken to singling out Trump directly.
At the start of October, North Korea reissued an end-of-year timeline for the United States to change its approach to negotiations. Last week, a statement released by the country's State Affairs Commission criticized Trump's statements about North Korean talks.
"We, without being given anything, gave things the U.S. president can brag about but the U.S. side has not yet taken any corresponding step," the statement said. "Now, betrayal is only what we feel from the U.S. side."
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