Trump Says He Will Not Talk to North Korea. Experts Fear He Will

While Mr. Trump’s threats against North Korea have been unnerving, it is the prospect of a risky dialogue that most unsettles former officials

People in Pyongyang watching a televised broadcast on Wednesday of a missile test.
Credit Kim Kwang Hyon/Associated Press

President Donald Trump vowed Wednesday that he would not talk to Kim Jong Un, cooling off what has become his on-again, off-again cultivation of North Korea’s rogue dictator.

But if Trump’s tweet, in which he said, “talking is not the answer!,” seemed to reignite tensions with North Korea, it also revealed a paradox in how Asia experts view the crisis. Some fear less that Trump is going to start a war with Kim than that he is going to stumble into a risky, unpredictable dialogue with him.

The world’s attention has understandably focused on Trump’s saber-rattling threats against Kim — most dramatically, his promise to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if Kim fired ballistic missiles at U.S. territory.

But a meeting between Trump and Kim, these experts said, could open the door to ratifying North Korea’s nuclear status or scaling back America’s joint military exercises with South Korea. That could sunder U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea and play to the benefit of China, which has long advocated direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.

“What the North Koreans are angling for is to bring the danger and tension to a crescendo, and then to pivot to a peace proposal,” said Daniel R. Russel, who served until March as the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. “All of this is focused on pressuring the U.S. to enter direct talks with Kim on his terms. That is the big trap.”

Previous presidents avoided that trap, Russel said, even if Bill Clinton briefly contemplated meeting Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il. But Trump brings a dealmaker’s swagger to the North Korea issue that his predecessors did not. He has in the past expressed a willingness to sit across a table from the willful young scion of North Korea’s ruling family.

“I would speak to him,” Trump said during the presidential campaign. “I would have no problem speaking to him.” In April, he said, “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely; I would be honored to do it.”

While the Pentagon has drawn up options for a military strike on the North, officials concede it would be all but impossible, given the retaliation it would provoke and the calamitous casualties that would result. Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, reflected that internal consensus when he told The American Prospect, “There’s no military solution. Forget it.”

That leaves diplomacy, which Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and other officials have made clear is still the administration’s preferred course. If North Korea curbs its behavior, Tillerson said recently, there is a “pathway to sometime in the early future having some dialogue.”

Hours after Trump ruled out talks on Twitter, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis contradicted him. “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” he told reporters. In Geneva, Robert A. Wood, the U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, said the United States remained open to dialogue. “We do not seek to be a threat to the Kim Jong Un regime,” he said.

Trying to explain Trump’s tweet, Wood, who was once the State Department’s acting spokesman, said, “What the president is saying is that he doesn’t see talking as solving this problem and part of the reason is that the North is not interested in dialogue.”

Indeed, Trump’s sudden hostility to talks appeared to be less a reversal of his previous statements than an expression of frustration with Kim’s continued belligerence. Days after Trump praised him for his newfound restraint, Kim lobbed a missile over Japan.

For now, a Trump-Kim summit remains a far-fetched notion. Even if North Korea was interested in speaking to the United States, its string of belligerent actions — not to mention the June death of Otto F. Warmbier, the Ohio college student held for nearly 18 months in Pyongyang — would make a meeting politically untenable for Trump.

In his tweet, the president declared, “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years.” While Trump’s precise meaning was unclear, he seemed to be referring to the promises of fuel oil, nuclear-power reactors, humanitarian aid and the lifting of sanctions that accompanied previous diplomatic negotiations.

Trump, experts said, is correct that talks with North Korea — whether conducted by Democratic or Republican administrations — have been costly and unproductive. And with the North Koreans now capable, by some estimates, of producing an atomic bomb every sixth or seventh week, the cost of reaching any new agreement would be even higher.

“We’re long past the point where we can fob them off with a few light-water reactors,” said Michael Auslin, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, who argued in an essay in Politico Magazine this week that Trump should shun negotiations in favor of a policy of explicitly deterring and containing a nuclear North Korea.

Other experts said it was not diplomacy itself that was problematic — particularly if the United States negotiated, along with its allies and China — but that Trump, acting alone, could be an unpredictable negotiator.

“Trump is not the first president to think he can make a deal with these guys,” said Auslin. “Bill Clinton thought he was the great negotiator. His aides thought if they could get him in a room with Kim Jong Il, they could seal a deal. There’s clearly a sense, because of the capriciousness of Trump and the ‘Art of the Deal,’ that he could do the same.”