WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un may be unprecedented, but during a quarter-century of on-off nuclear talks with North Korea, U.S. officials have learned a thing or two about dealing with an inscrutable adversary and have tried many tactics to get their way: quiet persuasion, black humor and even walking out of the room.
Across the table, they’ve faced dogged North Korea negotiators who launch into anti-American tirades, reflecting a doctrinaire mindset and the vast ideological gulf between two nations still technically at war. But they’ve also encountered officials who are polite, know their brief inside-out, and occasionally flash wit.
As Trump prepares to meet with Kim on Tuesday, there’s uncertainty about how the two headstrong leaders will get along and whether the former real estate mogul can extract nuclear concessions from the young North Korean autocrat. Four former U.S. officials reflect here on their own, often-difficult experience of negotiating with North Korea.
GONE WITH THE WIND
Starting in mid-1993, Robert Gallucci led the U.S. in direct talks with North Korea, seeking to rein in its then-nascent nuclear program. The first meeting took place in New York, on the top floor of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
Gallucci, then an assistant secretary of state, recalled that the Americans were taken aback by the sight of a dozen or so North Korean diplomats, each one with a lapel pin with a picture of their supreme leader.
“You can imagine us going into a meeting with lapel pins with Bill Clinton’s picture? It’s just implausible. But that actually goes to something that’s quite important for people to understand,” said Gallucci, describing North Korea as a cult of leadership as much as it is an authoritarian government. “And one forgets that at one’s peril. I think you can lose a lot of ground in discussion if you don’t understand how sensitive they are about their leadership.”
To the Americans’ surprise, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Kang Sok Ju, during the talks quoted from the epic American civil war novel, “Gone with the Wind.” It wasn’t the line immortalized by Clark Gable in the Hollywood movie — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Gallucci said, but rather “something to do with wagons rolling and dogs barking.” After the meeting, he gave Kang a copy of the book as a gift. Gallucci got a box of Korean ginseng tea in return.
Gallucci said the North Korean would use extreme and insulting language about the United States, and he’d push back, but ultimately he wasn’t interested in polemics. “It’s natural that you have this hostility. Having said that, you still want to build what rapport you can in the discussion so that you can reach your objectives.” After nearly a year-a-half, the two sides finalized a framework that halted North Korea’s production of plutonium for bombs in exchange for energy assistance.
DINNER WITH KIM JONG IL
The closest the U.S. has come in the past to holding a leadership summit with North Korea was in the dying months of the Clinton administration when the North expressed willingness to reach a deal restricting its ballistic missile program. Wendy Sherman was a close aide to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she visited Pyongyang in October 2000, exploring that possibility.
As a gift for then-autocrat Kim Jong Il — the current leader’s father — Albright had brought a basketball signed by Michael Jordan after learning that the diminutive Kim was a fan of the NBA.
During negotiations, the Americans were impressed by Kim’s mastery of missile technicalities. At dinner, an aide to Kim was leading constant toasts with soju, the fiery Korean liquor, leaving some of the U.S. delegation worse for wear.
Sherman said the North Korea leader was strangely protective of Albright and herself, who were seated on either side of Kim, several times waving the aide away. The atmosphere around the North leader was constrained. “No one is going to disagree with him. No one is going to correct him. What he says, goes,” Sherman said.
When a dancing troupe performed, and one dancer made a mistake, Kim was visibly displeased. “We were quite concerned for that young woman: that she had displeased the leader and that she would pay for it,” Sherman said.
Advice for Trump: “There is no trust between the United States and North Korea, any more than there is between the United States and Iran. There may be some respect or regard for the subject at hand, but no one should stop thinking for a moment about the horrific conditions in North Korea.”
A HIGHER CALLING
After Clinton left office, hopes for a U.S.-North Korea summit expired as the George W. Bush administration took a tougher line toward Pyongyang. The framework collapsed in 2002 amid U.S. suspicions that North Korea had a clandestine uranium enrichment program. In 2006, North Korea conducted the first of its six nuclear test explosions. The Bush administration used sticks, and eventually carrots, to press for progress on denuclearization.
Top diplomat for East Asia, Christopher Hill, led the U.S. in six-nation talks with the North hosted by China. “You need to be very specific about what you’re trying to get accomplished. And if they (North Koreans) come back and try to take something away that they’ve already agreed to, my approach was to just leave the table,” Hill said. “Sometimes they’d come back and say we have new instructions. And I’d say well that’s too bad because so do I. And I’d leave.”
The talks led to the temporary disabling of the North’s plutonium reactor but ultimately collapsed in a dispute over verification. Hill said there was little personal banter during the protracted negotiations, but he recounted occasional flashes of humor from the North Koreans. Once when Hill had to take a phone call from then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he explained to his North Korean counterpart that he had to take a break from the negotiations and answer “to a higher calling.” The North Korean replied, “Well, that’s a good opportunity for me to do the same,” whereupon he went to the bathroom.
PULLING OUT FINGERNAILS
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Clinton, has been a frequent interlocutor with North Korea since the 1990s, visiting eight times, often to seek the release of American detainees and acting in an independent capacity. He believes the North may agree to curbs on its nuclear program but won’t abandon it.
“North Koreans are very tough to deal with,” said Richardson. “They don’t think like we do. We think in terms of a compromise, quid pro quo. You do this, we do that. Their idea of negotiating is they’ll give you more time for you to get to their position.”
He said the best way to get results is to let them vent at formal talks, and then try to negotiate at a meal or in a walk outside the meeting, but he worried that Trump’s hip-shooting style could jar with North Koreans.
Richardson himself has used some unconventional tactics, such as when he was in Pyongyang in 1996 negotiating for the release of an American who had been arrested after swimming across the river border from China into North Korea.
“I made a joke. I said, ‘Well, are you treating this man properly? Does he still have his fingernails? And the North Koreans looked at me for about 10 seconds. I thought they were going to shoot me,” Richardson said.
But he said they did get that he was joking, and the man was soon released.