SEOUL— Will the flames of Donald Trump’s legendary bromance with Kim Jong Un burn on after he leaves office next month and as he angles for another run in 2024? The Korean dictator should love a séance with the ex-president in Pyongyang, as he did the good-will visits of former NBA star Dennis Rodman, Kim’s guest in 2013 and again in January 2014 when Rodman returned with other former NBA players singing “Happy Birthday” for the man he dubbed his “friend for life.”
“It’s a tossup between Trump and Dennis Rodman,” said David Straub, a former senior U.S. diplomat in South Korea—even if “no sane person would trust Trump as an intermediary.”
If the whole idea seems overblown, remember that Rodman, having been “fired” twice on Trump’s TV show The Apprentice, not only voted for him in 2016 but flew to Singapore in June 2018 in a display of solidarity with both Kim and Trump during the first of their three summits.
Rodman didn’t get to see either of the leaders in Singapore, but Trump and Kim in their meetings did touch upon Rodman’s visits to Pyongyang. As Trump told Fox News Radio in September, Kim “really does like Dennis Rodman.” Indeed, Trump opined, “Dennis would be better” as an emissary to North Korea than those top-level officials who’ve traipsed there in recent years, notably his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
Now that he’s on the way out, Trump may well be asking who better than he to carry on the affair kindled in Singapore with Kim when, he averred, they “fell in love” in the warm embrace of diplomatic détente. Similarly, despite the risk of upsetting the incoming President Biden & Co., Kim should love hosting Trump after COVID-19 is no longer a menace in a country that’s now tightly sealed against foreigners.
Korea government sources said a meeting between Trump and Kim would be possible considering the bond they formed long before Trump’s incessant claims of massive fraud in the November presidential election. Trump, they said, might reenter the U.S.-North Korea dialogue bearing “messages” from Kim while Biden’s negotiators look for an opening for talks with the North.
“A lot would depend on Biden,” said one official, and whether he could sublimate the steady stream of invective that Trump has been leveling against him in the run-up to the inauguration. As a guest of Kim Jong Un, it was suggested, Trump would surely believe he could build on his claims to have averted a second Korean War.
Both Kim and Trump “have incentives for conferring after Trump leaves office, if not necessarily noble ones,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, longtime Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute. For Kim, a meeting with Trump as ex-president would be the chance “to game the Americans.”
Virtually no foreigner can enter North Korea even if tests reveal no trace of COVID, but Trump would have reason to lust for a repeat tryst with the dictator whenever the pandemic goes away. For Trump, said Eberstadt, the goal would be “to stay in the public eye, and to stick his finger in Biden’s.”
Joseph Yun, a veteran diplomat who served as U.S. representative on North Korea from 2016 to 2018, cites the joint statement Trump and Kim signed in Singapore as laying the groundwork for diplomacy under Biden.
“It agrees to completely denuclearize and to work toward a peace regime,“ Yun said via zoom from the U.S. at a symposium here. “I don’t see why the Biden administration should not acknowledge and recognize that. It should be the first step to opening the way toward negotiations and lead to a long-term agreement.” Already, he said, “voices in Washington are pressing the Biden team to accept the joint statement.”
Together, the Trump-Kim duo stand to build on their previous sessions. “Everybody is saying how Kim will ‘test’ Biden,” said Bruce Bechtol, a former intelligence analyst on North Korea at the Pentagon and the author of books and studies on the North. “Would Trump be willing to come in to ‘ease tensions,’" Bechtol asked. “Why not? Who would stop him? It would be just another example of DPRK [North Korean] diplomacy tactics.”
“Kim and Trump might end up with the mutual objective of damaging the Biden administration and its foreign policy,” said David Maxwell, former special forces officer in Korea, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. Both “are trying to use the other—I can see Kim trying to exploit Trump to influence the Biden administration.”
Lee Sung-yoon at Tuft University’s Fletcher School concurred: “If Kim Jong Un beckons, Trump will come.” But would the Biden administration condone such a meet-up?
“It's hard to imagine the new U.S. administration would want Trump anywhere near a foreign policy challenge as sensitive as this one,” said Evans Revere, retired Korea expert at the State Department. “Every comment Trump has made about his intentions, together with the policy actions and personnel decisions by his government during the transition, tells us the plan is to undercut, disrupt, and hamstring the Biden administration, to narrow the new administration's policy options and room for maneuver.”
In the face of such considerations, however, a Trump-Kim meeting in Pyongyang would not just be a joyful reunion of two old pals. The point would be to spur Biden into getting serious about fresh talks between his new foreign policy team and North Korean negotiators with long experience in fitful dealings with Americans.
A headline-stealing Trump visit “would place much pressure on Biden to be likewise engaged by Kim,” said Lee Sung-yoon. Just to make the diplomatic power-play more enticing, if annoying to U.S. negotiators, Lee said Kim could “follow up on hosting Trump by sending his sister to visit Trump in New York”—an allusion to younger sister Kim Yo Jong, possibly the North’s second most powerful figure after her brother.
The notion of Trump descending on the North Korean capital may seem far-fetched while he’s denouncing his defeat at the polls on Nov. 3 as “rigged” and “fraudulent,” but he would not be the first former president to go there. Two of his predecessors also made the pilgrimage.
Jimmy Carter, elected to a single term as president in 1976, visited Pyongyang at the height of the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994 while Bill Clinton was president. In a meeting with Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, regime founder Kim Il Sung, a month before Kim’s death, Carter returned with a promise of a freeze of the North’s nascent nuclear program.
Clinton was anxious to go to Pyongyang in the final weeks of his eight-year presidency in 2000 but held back during the recount of votes in Florida that resulted in the defeat of his vice president, Al Gore, and the election of George W. Bush.
It was not until nine years later, in Barack Obama’s first year as president, that Clinton arrived in Pyongyang on a private plane owned by movie producer Steve Bing to pick up two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, imprisoned nearly five months earlier after crossing the narrow Tumen River from China to the North Korean side while filming for Gore's Current TV. Clinton and his entourage dined for three hours with Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il Sung and father of Kim Jong Un, before taking off with Ling and Lee on board.
Scott Snyder, Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations cautions, however, that the Republican Trump may be reluctant to follow in the tracks of those two Democratic ex-presidents.
“I’ve thought about that, but I wonder if it will happen if anyone tells Trump that former presidents Carter and Clinton have both gone to Pyongyang because then it wouldn't be unprecedented,” said Snyder. In the end, he said, “KJU will have to decide how he handles his pen-pal relationship with Trump as a former president.”
Leif-Eric Easley, professor at Ewha University in Seoul, believes a meeting between Trump and Kim “would be great television,” but that’s about it. “There is a non-zero chance Kim would like to trial-balloon a deal with Trump the way his grandfather did with former president Carter in 1994,” he said, but “the odds of Kim’s interest go up if he sees little benefit in working-level talks with the Biden administration or in re-engaging South Korean President Moon Jae-in.”
For all the uncertainties, a Trump visit to Pyongyang “will be possible maybe within a few months after Biden takes office,” said Ha Tae-keung, a member of South Korea’s national assembly, but he cautioned that Kim was “very afraid about COVID-19” and would worry about picking up the bug from Trump, who came down with a mild case in October. Ha predicted Trump and Kim would first exchange letters, as they did before and after all three of their meetings, including the failed summit in Hanoi in February of last year and their last rendezvous four months later on the North-South line in Panmunjom where the Korean War truce was signed in 1953.
Undoubtedly one big reason for Trump to go to Pyongyang would be to demonstrate that he, not Biden, could bring about a thaw in relations between North Korea and the U.S. and also between North and South Korea. “Biden has ignored Kim Jong Un,” said Ha, while Kim has ignored news of the election of Biden, whom North Korean propaganda once excoriated as “a rabid dog.”
“They haven’t made up their minds yet about the position to take about Biden,” said Ha, but Trump might play into calculations as a sort of wild card.
“Former U.S. presidents have a history of visiting North Korea,” said Cho Tae-yong, chairman of the international committee of the conservative People Power Party. “While Biden is in office, anything is possible.”
Presumably reluctant to upset Trump while weighing his new strategy for Biden, Kim has not followed the lead of President Xi Jinping of China, North Korea’s only real ally, in congratulating Biden. He has also clamped a blackout on news of Biden’s election in the North Korean media.
Besides inviting Trump to Pyongyang, Kim could try to gain Biden’s attention by ordering tests of short to mid-range missiles as he has done many times during Trump’s presidency.
Having ordered North Korea’s sixth, most recent nuclear test in September 2017, Kim is not expected to want to test another nuke any time soon but may consider testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a warhead to targets in the U.S. Despite the joint statement that he and Trump signed in Singapore pledging efforts to achieve a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula,” he has shown no signs of giving up his nuclear program. Intelligence analysts believe North Korea has a stockpile of 40-60 warheads and is still producing them.
Kim, who has demanded an end to U.S. and U.N. sanctions while clinging to his nukes, counts on total support from China, embroiled in rising tensions with the U.S. China pumps in oil through a pipe system beneath the Yalu River border, but trade with China has gone down drastically while Kim toughens border controls enforced by executions of at least two officials.
If Trump made history as the first sitting U.S. president to meet any of the three members of the Kim dynasty who have ruled North Korea since the end of Japanese rule in 1945, some analysts think the time may have passed to advance the relationship.
Ex-diplomat Straub, who accompanied Clinton on his Pyongyang visit in 2009, “wouldn’t put it past Trump visiting North Korea and meeting KJU as a media stunt, to troll Biden” but doubts “he will try to build something or do other actual money business in or with the North Koreans—unless the North Koreans pay him to allow them to put his name on a building.”
That’s most unlikely, said Straub, considering the North Koreans, like Trump, “have made a career of not paying others but of getting others to give them money.” Trump “now recognizes that dealing with North Korea is an extremely high risk/low gain proposition,” he added. “There’s “no reason to believe that private citizen Trump would see doing business with Kim Jong Un in his interests either financially or politically.”
Lee Sung-yoon at the Fletcher School takes a somewhat different view. “The optics would favor Trump instead of Biden,” Lee said. “Trump would come across as the true U.S. statesman no matter how hollow or misleading any agreement reached with Kim Jong Un or the first sister may be.”