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Trump's North Korean tightrope

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Photo: Vincenzo Lombardo / Getty Images

President Trump has thrust himself into a precarious diplomatic situation by unexpectedly agreeing to meet in the coming weeks with Kim Jong-un.

The big questions: North Korea put a lot on the table, according to South Korean officials — denuclearization, a testing freeze and acceptance of U.S.-South Korea military drills. The U.S. hasn't even made its opening bid. So what does Trump choose to believe from Kim, and what's he willing to offer to make a deal?

Issues to navigate

  • The optics: If the U.S. does come to the negotiating table, it might show North Korea the U.S. sees it as an equal, even if that's not the intent. That's one big, tacit concession to the Kim regime — North Korea has long-wanted to be seen as a major player on the world stage.
  • The details: Virtually no trust exists between these countries, and no conversations have yet taken place about nuclear site inspection, for example. Disagreements over site inspection have doomed previous talks.
  • Diplomatic telephone: Trump got his information on Thursday night second hand, from the South Koreans. The more channels a message goes through, the more opportunities it has to stray from the truth.
  • Follow the leader: Suzanne DiMaggio, who has been leading unofficial conversation between the U.S. and North Korea, tweets, "Right now, [Kim Jong-un] is setting the agenda & the pace, & the Trump admin is reacting. The admin needs to move quickly to change this dynamic."
  • Staffing issues: The Special Representative for North Korea is leaving his post, the U.S. lacks a permanent ambassador to Seoul, the assistant secretary for East Asia hasn’t yet been confirmed and a Special Envoy role used during previous talks is vacant.

The bottom line: There is no playbook for talks like these, and anyone who says they know exactly what North Korea is up to is lying.