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Beginning in 2003, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the US entered into talks with North Korea, the so-called Six Party talks. After several false starts, the North announced it was prepared to give up its nuclear weapons while Washington indicated its willingness to pledge not to use military force to overthrow the Kim regime, as it had overthrown Saddam Hussein. By 2009 the latest set of talks was also dead. North Korea simply went ahead with both its nuclear programme and its tests of ever-longer-range missiles. By the time Donald Trump took office Pyongyang had amassed a record of repeatedly making promises it eventually broke, while the US and the United Nations unleashed a host of sanctions that did not seem to stop the North Koreans. At the same time, Pyongyang was wary of American assurances, especially after Nato assistance in the overthrow and killing of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, after the Libyan leader had agreed to terminate his own nuclear programme eight years earlier. Diplomacy as had been practised for the previous two decades simply had not worked.

Trump has adopted an entirely different approach. He initially entered into a war of words with Kim Jong-un, as if the two men were bawling each other out in a school playground. Then, in October 2017, responding to two North Korean Hwasong-14 ICBM missile tests the previous July, Trump dispatched three aircraft-carrier strike groups for exercises with Japan in the north-west Pacific. It was the largest such American force to operate in the region since 2007, and had the potential to launch a devastating air and missile strike against the North. The North Koreans no doubt must have taken note of Trump’s decision to approve a cruise missile strike against Syria, something his predecessor, for all his threats, had failed to do. It indicated that when Trump spoke of military action against the North, it was possible that he actually meant it. At the same time, Trump was reaching out to an increasingly concerned China, virtually North Korea’s sole trading partner, seeking both to enlist Beijing’s support for a new round of sanctions and to encourage China to pressure Pyongyang to freeze both its nuclear programme and its missile tests.

Trump’s approach seemingly contradicted that of President Moon Jae-in, who was attempting to reach out to his North Korean counterpart. In the event, however, the American and South Korean approaches dovetailed. Kim Jong-un employed the South Koreans as intermediaries when he offered to meet both Moon and Trump without preconditions. Moreover, he offered to freeze missile testing and asserted that he did not object to America’s holding its annual joint military exercises with South Korea. These were offers his father had made in the Six Party talks.

Trump’s immediate acceptance of Kim’s offer surprised virtually everyone, including then-Secretary of State Tillerson, but it demonstrated that Trump, having indicated that he would not be restrained by diplomatic niceties, was nevertheless willing to reach a “deal” with his North Korean counterpart. Trump acted quickly to reassure Japan, China and of course South Korea that he would not keep them in the dark as he prepared for the meeting. And he fired Tillerson, with whom he barely saw eye to eye and with whom he therefore would have been unable to map out a strategy for dealing with Kim. In choosing Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson, however, Trump was naming someone in whom he placed considerable trust and who, as Director of the CIA, had more access to information about Kim, and probably knew more about Kim’s sincerity, motives and plans, than anyone else inside or outside government.
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