‘They Want to Know If Trump’s Crazy’

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“They want to know if he’s crazy,” mentioned Suzanne DiMaggio, “or if this is just an act.”

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“They” is North Korean officers. And “he” is Donald Trump. Four instances over the past yr, in Geneva, Pyongyang, Oslo and Moscow, DiMaggio has secretly met with North Koreans to speak in regards to the nation’s nuclear program. But what they actually need to discuss, DiMaggio mentioned in an in depth new interview for The Global Politico, is America’s unstable president.

The North Koreans have requested her not provided that Trump is nuts, DiMaggio mentioned, however what and the way to consider the whole lot from his public undercutting of his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential marketing campaign collusion with Russia.

“They really want to know what is his end game,” mentioned DiMaggio, a scholar at New America who makes a speciality of speaking with rogue regimes and has spent almost twenty years in secret discussions with the North Koreans. She believes they had been prepared after Trump’s shock election to debate a brand new spherical of official talks with the U.S. to defuse the standoff over their nuclear weapons – however that Trump’s escalating rhetoric and Twitter rants akin to his weekend taunting of North Korea’s “short and fat” Kim Jong Un might have foreclosed that choice. “They follow the news very closely; they watch CNN 24/7; they read his tweets and other things.”

Among points the North Koreans have raised together with her in latest months, DiMaggio mentioned, had been the whole lot from Trump’s tweet urging Tillerson to surrender on diplomacy with North Korea (“Is this a good cop/bad cop that he’s doing with Tillerson?”) to Trump’s determination this fall to decertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal cast by his predecessor, Barack Obama. That, DiMaggio mentioned, “has sent a clear signal to the North Koreans: Why should they enter a deal with us, if we’re not going to stick with it?”

“They question his erratic behavior, and also his mounting problems here at home, with the investigation being conducted by Robert Mueller, and they are asking, ‘Why should we begin negotiations with the Trump administration, when Donald Trump may not be president much longer?’”

***

For years, DiMaggio and Joel Wit, a longtime U.S. diplomat turned scholar at Johns Hopkins University who based the influential North Korea-watching web site 38North, have been quietly badembly with North Koreans to speak in regards to the nation’s nuclear program. In the previous they hardly acknowledged the conversations, a part of a “Track 2” dialogue that has stored a line open to the remoted dictatorship even when the 2 governments formally weren’t on talking phrases.

But that was earlier than Trump.

In their conferences with the North Koreans since Trump was elected, DiMaggio and Wit watched their rising alarm and confusion as an preliminary outreach after the election testing U.S. response to new nuclear talks descended right into a Trumpian fury of name-calling, mutual recriminations and navy escalation. Now she and Wit are talking out regardless of their previous reluctance even to acknowledge the North Korean conferences, describing them in a latest New York Times op-ed and including new element on this week’s episode of our Global Politico podcast. “I don’t normally talk about my ‘Track 2’ work in such a public way,” DiMaggio tweeted. “But these are far from normal times.”

Their account comes at a fraught second within the burgeoning disaster with North Korea, with Trump wrapping up a 12-day Asia tour after sending complicated and contradictory indicators. The president initially projected an uncharacteristically diplomatic strategy on the journey, suggesting a brand new openness to negotiations as a means out of the nuclear deadlock, delivering a strongly worded tackle in Seoul about North Korea’s human rights abuses, and urgent the Chinese in Beijing to make widespread trigger with the U.S. on stepped-up sanctions in opposition to the neighboring North Korean regime.

But even earlier than a last cease in Manila, Trump was again right into a confrontation with Kim that appeared to undercut the journey’s scripted statesmanship. While DiMaggio and Wit had no definitive reply for the North Koreans after they had requested if Trump was loopy, the North Koreans clearly got here to their very own conclusion. Responding to Trump’s Seoul speech, North Korea’s state media referred to as him a “lunatic old man” trying to begin a nuclear struggle. It warned that the United States confronted an “abyss of doom” until it eliminates Trump and abandons his “hostile policy.”

Trump appeared extra miffed on the badault on his age than his sanity. Abandoning the rigorously formulated statements of his advisers, he tweeted again his outrage about being referred to as previous, whereas insisting, maybe tongue in cheek, that he had tried to turn out to be a “friend” to Kim and sarcastically claiming that not less than he had by no means referred to as the rotund younger dictator “short and fat.”

Even earlier than that trade, DiMaggio and Wit instructed me Trump’s penchant for insulting the North Koreans and their chief in unusually private phrases violated rule No. 1 of what the U.S. authorities has discovered through the years about interacting with the North Koreans: “Whatever you do, don’t personally insult this man,” as DiMaggio put it.

In truth, the name-calling repeats an American tactic that has backfired with earlier North Korean leaders. “The idea that the administration has—and particularly President Trump—that escalating threats is going to make the North Koreans be more flexible, is wrong. Escalating threats only make North Koreans more inflexible,” Wit mentioned. “Being gratuitously tough, “ he added later, “is a big mistake, because the North Koreans can be tough as nails themselves, and for them, being weak is like committing suicide.”

But Trump has as soon as once more gone in for robust speak anyway. Will it matter? After all, U.S. presidents have been attempting and failing to cease Kim, his father and grandfather for 2 greater than twenty years from nuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Still, within the interview, DiMaggio and Wit recounted what they imagine to be an missed willingness on the a part of the North Koreans to interact in new negotiations with the incoming Trump administration, an choice they now worry could also be now not accessible. “My concern is that because of all these contradictory statements and the threats, that the narrow window that is opened, I believe, for conducting talks is gradually closing,” DiMaggio mentioned.

In latest weeks, Wit has publicly put the chances of a navy battle at 40 p.c, whereas former CIA director John Brennan has badessed them at 25 p.c amid indicators of escalating U.S. navy exercise that many consultants fear may set off miscalculation and even outright aggression by North Korea. “It’s not the actual military moves,” mentioned Abraham Denmark, who served because the Pentagon’s deputy badistant secretary of protection for East Asia underneath Obama. “It’s when they’re put together with this inflated rhetoric. That’s when I start getting worried about the increased potential for misunderstanding—and actual conflict.”

***

It didn’t must prove this fashion, in accordance with DiMaggio and Wit.

In truth, the North Koreans agreed with Trump that Obama’s coverage of “strategic patience”—basically, ready for them to buckle—had failed. “Very early on, the North Koreans conveyed that they saw a new administration as a potential fresh start,” DiMaggio mentioned. “The relationship with the Obama administration had turned so sour, especially after the U.S. sanctioned Kim Jong Un personally. That really blew the relationship out of the water.”

Wit agreed that, whereas it bought little consideration on the time, the Obama administration had misinterpret Kim Jong Un when he succeeded his father in 2010, and had did not pursue new nuclear talks earlier than then which may have stored the North Koreans farther away from reaching a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile that may attain the continental U.S., a breakthrough they’re now on the point of making. Obama’s strategy, Wit mentioned, now seems like a “big mistake.”

Given how shut North Korea is to reaching that breakthrough, North Korea watchers are divided on how significantly to take the North Korean outreach at first of the Trump administration and plenty of fear that the Trump crew, with a weakened Secretary of State Tillerson and depleted, demoralized diplomatic corps (there are not more than two present U.S. officers, Wit mentioned, who’ve even met North Koreans), may not be capable to undertake significant nuclear talks anyway.

But DiMaggio insisted within the interview that it was a real strategy.

“Based on my conversations with them immediately after the inauguration, when I traveled to Pyongyang to meet them, they were very clear that this could be a new beginning,” she mentioned. “They certainly didn’t have any illusions that things would be easy, but I think they were willing at least to consider the idea of talks with the United States without preconditions at that time.”

That identical supply, she mentioned, was made to the senior U.S. State Department envoy for North Korea, Joseph Yun, in conferences she brokered, and he or she believes it was nonetheless potential a number of weeks in the past, when she met a senior North Korean diplomat in Moscow. “She left the door open to talks with the United States,” DiMaggio mentioned. “She had some thoughts on what would need to happen in order for that to take place, but it was a narrow opening, and I think that’s the way we should interpret it.”

Then once more, the encounter in Moscow additionally underscored how shut Pyongyang is to reaching the nuclear-power standing that it has lengthy coveted: arming itself with a nuclear weapon that may immediately goal the United States. “They’re on their way to accomplishing that,” DiMaggio mentioned. “So, the real question is, will they wait until after they’re able to declare that they’ve achieved that, or demonstrate it to a point where they feel satisfaction that they’ve reached a satisfactory outcome? And will they return to the table at that time?”

At least partly, the reply might rely on all these questions they’ve been peppering her with about Donald Trump. Is he a dependable negotiator? A brief-timer in workplace? A madman or only a man who likes to play one on TV?

After 11 days in Asia, North Korea has come up at each one in every of Trump’s many stops, however these questions are not any nearer to being answered.

Susan B. Glbader is POLITICO’s chief worldwide affairs columnist. Her new podcast, The Global Politico, comes out Mondays. Subscribe right here. Follow her on Twitter @sbg1.

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