WASHINGTON — The White House has placed unprecedented constraints on President Trump’s personal interactions with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, leaving the public with no information on if or when the two will meet to discuss the possibility of denuclearization.
Because there is no guarantee, much less a guarantee, that talks will result in an agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, there is nothing to back up an indication that Trump plans to meet Kim.
Instead, with White House officials dealing with a news cycle that has lurched between conflicting and fevered reports of the state of Kim’s health and the president’s own health, it is difficult to gauge if either is up to staking out a position on a potential breakthrough.
The strangest part of the drama is that by raising the specter of North Korea’s nuclear threat, Trump has in some ways contributed to an atmosphere that might push Kim to meet in his absence.
People who have dealt with South Korean leaders or others close to the North Korea leadership said this week they have been surprised to see how the chatter about Kim’s health has sometimes been used as a wedge issue, with each side seeking to put the other in a less-than-ideal negotiating position.
Members of the administration have explained that Trump’s personal diplomacy with Kim is meant to translate ideas into actions and shows that Kim can be taken seriously as a human being. To this point, however, that effort is failing to reassure allies who worry that the White House is making unrealistic demands or placing unrealistic conditions on talks.
While experts caution that it is important to assess the condition of the leaders who might be persuading each other to step away from the table, Trump is also worrying allies because he is injecting uncertainty in what he hopes will be a process that lasts about a year.
“This was always a very sensitive part of trying to get any kind of peace agreement,” said Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor and now a senior vice president with the nonprofit Human Rights First. “People never got the sense that the U.S. wanted to get to a comprehensive agreement of anything more than symbolism. You will never get to comprehensive because you have both parties, and they are getting ready to say no. And the United States has gotten in the way of that process because it has decided that some final, conclusive agreement will come out of this.”