US President Donald Trump appears sullen during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires on November 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb
US President Donald Trump appears sullen during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Buenos Aires on November 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un struck a cooperative tone in his New Year’s address, continuing a tradition of using the annual speech to extend an olive branch internationally. Kim also sent US President Donald Trump a “great letter” Friday, signaling that he is ready for a second summit with the US.

But before a second summit happens, Trump must learn from the mistakes that led to a communication breakdown in the first place.

“The US is not always right,” said Moon Chung-in, special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in a talk show interview Friday.

Moon’s comments largely fault the US for the stalled nuclear talks because no specifics on denuclearization have been agreed upon.

In Kim’s New Year’s address, he hinted at what denuclearization could look like: a halt in the development and proliferation of new nuclear weapons.

“However, if the US miscalculates our people’s patience, forces something upon us and pursues sanctions and pressure,” Kim said in a New Year’s interview, “We have no option but to explore a new path in order to protect our sovereignty and achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

It’s clear there is a lot of work to be done regarding denuclearization, said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a Friday interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News – despite Trump’s declaration that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal was “no longer” a problem, one day after the Singapore Summit.

When Pompeo visited Pyongyang last July, the Kim administration stonewalled the US delegation for “gangster-like” negotiation tactics. Since then, communication between the US and North Korea has been hushed.

But in the absence of the US, there’s been considerable progress within the Korean Peninsula:

  • Moon met Kim in Pyongyang for a second inter-Korean summit.
  • Both countries dismantled their guard towers along the DMZ and disarmed the border village, Panmunjom.
  • Kim plans to visit Seoul for continued talks to end the decades-long Korean War.

If Trump wants a taste of that progress, there are several key mistakes that the administration must avoid repeating.

‘Twitter War’

It’s no surprise that Twitter is Trump’s vice. But when it comes to nuclear negotiations, his late-night musings could prove deadly.

It’s arguable that tensions rose as high as they did because of Trump’s rhetoric and hyperbole.

In January 2017, then President-Elect Trump started the “Twitter War” with a goad, saying that North Korea would never be able to reach the US with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM):

After Trump assumed office, the rhetoric ramped up. From “fire and fury” to “little rocket man,” his insults grew more absurd and petty. It eventually culminated into a threat to nuke North Korea – the very country he wants to stop developing nuclear weapons.

The Pyeongchang Olympics, where North and South Korea played as a unified team, simmered tensions. It set into motion the Panmunjom Summit and the eventual Singapore Summit, where Trump and Kim met for the first time.

Then, just like that, Trump’s admonition of Kim turned into exaltation. He was feeding into North Korea’s propaganda machine.

[Read: Trump is spreading North Korean propaganda]

It’s clear that name-calling doesn’t work but neither does lavish praise.

Insulting South Korea

As North Korea was ramping up its long-range missile capabilities, Trump was furious over the trade deficit with South Korea from the US-Korea trade agreement (KORUS).

During the height of the Twitter War, when North Korea was testing ICBM after ICBM, Trump wanted South Korea to pay for the THAAD, an anti-missile system the US military has deployed in South Korea, according to Bob Woodward’s reporting in Fear: Trump in the White House.

The THAAD in South Korea can detect a missile launched from North Korea in seven seconds. The second closest THAAD, positioned in Alaska, takes 15 minutes. But Trump wanted it out of South Korea and in Portland, Oregon, against former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s wishes, Woodward wrote.

Trump had also drawn up a formal termination of KORUS, dated September 5, 2017. But Woodward’s investigation found that Gary Cohn, former director of the National Economics Council, stole the letter from Trump’s desk “to protect the country.”

All the while, Trump had not yet appointed an ambassador to South Korea. His initial pick, Victor Cha, fell through over a spat sparked by  Trump suggesting pre-emptive military strikes on North Korea.

The post was left vacant for a year and seven months during the most volatile times with North Korea in recent memory. Trump ultimately nominated Harry Harris, a former Navy admiral and a Japanese-American.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s Japanese nomination had a chilly reception in Seoul. Korea Times and Yonhap News ran several somewhat confused editorials that labeled Harris as a “hawk.”

Reneging on nuclear agreements

Against the wishes of his advisers and generals, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018.

The deal was seen as a foreign policy achievement for former president Barack Obama. It increased restrictions on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and allowed for inspections by the US, but Trump decried the deal as “horrible” and “one-sided,” during his announcement to withdraw.

Trump long scrutinized the agreement during his campaign, and his decision to leave it is seen as a fulfillment of a campaign promise domestically.

Internationally, North Korea is watching as the US breaks its promises regarding nuclear weapons.

John Bolton

US-North Korea relations have ebbed and flowed over the past four presidencies.

A high point was reached with former president Bill Clinton’s Joint Framework Agreement in 1994, which limited North Korea’s nuclear reactors and production of plutonium.

The agreement lasted for eight years until the George W Bush famously called North Korea part of an “axis of evil” during a State of the Union address in 2002. Relations soured. Since then, relations have become even worse.

The constant in this downward spiral? John Bolton.

He is an unapologetically hawkish interventionist. Bolton influenced the Bush administration’s decision to back out of Clinton’s nuclear agreement. He was also involved in another famously botched nuclear deal: Libya.

Bolton argued against Bush’s more diplomatic approach and instead publicly called for Muammar Gaddafi’s assassination, which ultimately became true.

Shortly after Trump nominated him as national security adviser last April, Bolton called for the “Libya model” for North Korea: a thinly veiled threat of regime change.

Secretary of State Pompeo, at least, showed a more measured approach Friday. He said that he hopes for another summit soon, noting that it won’t be the last summit needed to effect sustainable change.

It’s hard to say whether North Korea will give Pompeo another chance, but he will be desperately needed in the next round of negotiations – especially since Mattis is no longer there to talk Trump down when he wants to move the THAAD to Portland.

Likewise, Cohn won’t be around to steal the next bad decision from President Trump’s desk.