arlier this month, at a NATO summit in London, Donald Trump declared that “we have peace” with North Korea and that he had a better “personal relationship” with Kim Jong Un than the dictator had with possibly anyone else “in the world.”
Hours later, I stood in a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., with U.S. and South Korean officials and North Korea experts at a reception hosted by the Korea Foundation, a public-diplomacy organization affiliated with the South Korean government. The president’s North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, spoke in subdued tones about how he felt the “weight” of the past year on his “own shoulders,” his actual slouched shoulders completing the picture of a diplomat repeatedly spurned. “Obviously we have not made as much progress as we would have hoped at this point, but let me be absolutely clear: We have not given up,” he stated, the platitude seeming to belie the message.
As Biegun made a beeline for the bar, attendees dining on potatoes au gratin and deviled eggs speculated not about peace in our time but rather about what sort of provocation Kim was plotting. A North Korean official had just threatened to deliver a “Christmas gift” to the United States if the U.S. doesn’t assume a more flexible position in nuclear negotiations by the end of the year. As far as punitive gift-giving goes, North Korea tends to favor demonstrations of fearsome weapons over lumps of coal.
The subtext of all the nervous talk was that Trump’s once-promising diplomacy with Kim is rapidly unraveling. The two leaders are no longer unknown quantities to each other, making a return to the military brinkmanship of 2017—perhaps the most dangerous standoff involving nuclear weapons since the Cuban missile crisis—less likely. But as the new year nears, the United States and North Korea are reverting to their old ways, however half-heartedly.