Will They? Won’t They? The Kim-Trump Courtship in International Relations 

‘Will They? Won’t They? `is a classic Television Sitcom motif that we are all fairly familiar with. Whether it was Ross and Rachael on Friends, or JD and Elliot on Scrubs, Alicia and Will on the Goodwife or Jake and Amy on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, we have been used to two individuals, locked into a relationship, dancing round another one, each of us waiting on tender hooks to see whether they will actually get together. Yet for the past few weeks its been the real world of international relations that have offered us this tense interpersonal dynamic, leaving many wandering whether US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un will have that historic June 12th, 2018 Summit in Singapore?

Strong Start 

Following the message conveyed by a South Korean envoy to the United States, of Kim Jong-un’s offer of direct face-to-face talks with Trump in March 2018 in which it was suggested, though not confirmed that the issue of denuclearisation could be on the table, the prospect of a direct US-North Korea talks were raised (Wadhams, April 8th 2018). Announced by South Korean national security director, Chung Eui-yong, Intelligence Chief Suh Hoon and the Ambassador to the US, Cho Yoon-je, the invitation from North Korea came with an offer to suspend its missile and nuclear tests (Borger, 9th March 2018). This invitation was accepted by Trump with the potential for a summit to come as early as May 2018 (Borger, 9th March 2018).

A summit between Trump and Kim would be the first ever face-to-face meeting between leaders of the two countries (Borger, 9th March 2018). Previous high level face-to-face negotiations took place during 1994 between President Jimmy Carter and Kim Il-sung during the 1993-1994 nuclear crisis between the US and North Korea n which North Korea threatened to reprocess plutonium at the Yongbyon facilities and end International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. During two face-to-face meetings, Carter, on behalf of US President Bill Clinton and Kim were able to diffuse tensions between the two countries and gain an understanding of the other’s intentions resulting in a deal in which the US would support sale of two light water proliferation-resistant reactors in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear activity and halted its attempts to reprocess plutonium at Yongbyon (Wheeler, 2018, pp. 97, 281-282).

Securing a face-to-face meeting between leaders of the two countries has been a long-held desire for the North Korean regime in order to demonstrate its own perceived status as a ‘regional military power` (Borger, 9th March 2018).

It is precisely this recognition that the US has consistently sought to avoid, viewing the concession of a face-to-face summit as a bargaining chip with the North Korean regime. Indeed, both George W Bush and Barak Obama viewed a face-to-face summit as ‘a reward that had to be earned`. This required alterations in North Korea’s behaviour by taking ‘concrete and verifiable steps` towards unilateral nuclear disarmament rather than the US altering its own behaviour to accept the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korean regime (Wheeler and Holmes, March 13th, 2018)

In my opinion, the tension between the long-standing policy of Bush and Barak to avoid any face-to-face summit unless there had been a change in North Korea’s behaviour and Trump’s swift acceptance of the proposed summit, suggested by North Korea, played a significant impact in the back-and-forth “Will They/Won’t They?” of previous weeks as the June 12th Summit approached.

The Long Dance To Singapore 

Singapore was chosen as the site for the summit because it represented a ‘safe alternative` to the proposed demilitarized zone site where North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un had previously met South Korea’s Moon Jae-In due to Singapore’s long-standing links both with the US and North Korea as well as its symbolic location as the ‘gateway between east and west` and the site of previous international summits including the 2015 summit between China’s Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou (Borger and Smith, May 10th 2018). With the location of the summit set, it seemed to many that the hurdles had been overcome with all attention turned towards the forthcoming summit. But then this took an unexpected yet unsurprising turn.

After a series of provocative statements by both the US and North Korea, Donald Trump, to the surprise of many, cancelled the June 12th Summit (Borger and Haas, 24th May 2018). Trump released a letter written to Kim in which he stated that he felt ‘a wonderful dialogue was building up between you [Kim] and me [Trump] and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters` however because of the ‘tremendous anger and open hostility` displayed by the North Koreans, the summit could not go ahead (The Guardian, 24th May 2018). In addition, the US stated that the lack of progress on pre-summit meetings between US and North Korean officials to prepare for the Singapore summit between Trump and Kim and to ensure that it had the potential to succeed. North Korean officials had for example failed to appear for a logistics meeting with US officials (Borger and Haas, 24th May 2018).

None of this however recognised that North Korea’s own behaviour and rhetoric had been influenced by the US pre-summit rhetoric which was considered by the North Koreans as demonstrating US bad-faith which they responded to, in kind. The rhetoric that the US used was to mention the ‘Libya deal as a model for North Korea’s own denuclearization` (Specia and Sanger, 16th May 2018). When one considers all the potential spoilers to a US-North Korea summit in the region, China, Russia and Japan as well as the two protagonists themselves, it was thus a surprise to many that it was the reference to Libya, that threw the spanner in the works (Friedman, 24th May 2018).

National Security Advisor John Bolton, voicing a familiar argument he had been making, declared that the North Korean should follow the Libyan model of nuclear disarmament, a deal which Bolton had been involved in under George Bush’s administration in 2003 (Friedman, 24th May 2018).

In 2003, Libya under Muammar al-Qaddafi, agreed to scrap its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programme and to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to enter the country to verify and oversee the decommissioning. This had followed nine-months of negotiations between the US under George Bush, the United Kingdom (UK) under Tony Blair and Libya (Morris and Buncombe, 20th December 2003). Fast forward to 2011 and Qaddafi had been shot dead by his own people during the Arab Spring in Libya in which the US had led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military intervention against Qaddafi’s regime aided by Libya’s abandonment of its nuclear deterrent. One can draw, as the North Korans did in 2016, similarities with the US intervention in Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein (Friedman, 24th May 2018). In response to Bolton’s comment, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs threatened to pull out of the US-North Korea summit due to Bolton’s remarks (Friedman, 24th 2018).

Trump himself stated that the US had ‘decimated [Qaddafi]. And we did the same thing with Iraq` and the possibility was left open that ‘That model would take place if we don’t make a deal` after having promised North Korea security guarantees (Friedman, 24th 2018). Vice-President Mike Pence added his own comments stating that North Korea would ‘only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal`, which in the lead up to the 12th June 2018, could easily be seen as a direct threat (Tatum and Griffiths, 22nd May 2018). Indeed Pence outlined that the US would never accept a North Korean regime with nuclear weapons or the ballistic missile technology to target the US and that the military option was still on the table (Friedman, 24th May 2018).  Following Pence’s comments, North Korea again threatened to withdraw from the Singapore summit before the US decided to withdraw itself (Specia and Sanger, 16th May 2018).

In my opinion, this was either a poorly chosen phrase or a deliberate threat and provocation: make a deal or suffer the consequences which in the context of building dialogue, trust and cooperation in preparation for a summit, is counter-productive and serves only to reinforce the perception from the North Korean side of its need to retain its nuclear deterrence against US aggression. Indeed, the response from a North Korean official indicates this, stating that Pence’s comment were ‘an awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers` (Tatum and Griffiths, 22nd May 2018)

The Storm Has Passed 

A week after Trump’s scrapping of the Singapore Summit, it was suddenly announced that the Singapore Summit was back on after the intense statements being exchanged between North Korea and the US stating ‘I think we’re over that, totally over that, and now we’re going to deal and we’re going to really a start a process` (Liptak, 1st June 2018). The apparent change in Trump’s approach towards the summit came as a result of a letter he received from Kim delivered to the White House by Kim Yong Chol, a former North Korean spy chief and their current top nuclear negotiator (Liptak, 1st June 2018). In addition, there had been a surprise second summit at the demilitarised zone between Kim and Moon in which the focus was on restoring the US-North Korea Summit (BBC, 26th May 2018).

Though the content of Kim’s letter has not yet been revealed, the letter itself was a clear attempt by the North Korean leadership to directly engage the US using the established diplomatic methods that Trump had utilised with his own letter and had taken advantage of Trump’s own openness to dialogue being continued. It is likely that the letter contained praise of Trump’s leadership and his decision to agree to the summit, to massage his own ego which has been demonstrated to be a useful diplomatic tool, before discussing denuclearization and the normalising of relations between the US and North Korea (Kim, 2nd June 2018).

Whether the letter amounted to anything concrete or merely open the possibility of bearing fruit, one cannot say at this point but given that the summit was promptly put back on the calendar by the Trump administration, it must have, in my opinion contained enough for the US to take the risk and convince those close to the President such as Vice-President Pence and National Security Adviser Bolton. Nevertheless, the whole ‘Will They/Wont They` episode of the past weeks has demonstrated that despite the 12th June Summit moving forward after the ‘Libyan model` spat and the symbolic gesture such as Trump suggesting that if the summit proved successful, Kim might be invited to the US to the White House, there exists a fundamental tension in the positions of the US and the North Korea (BBC, 8th June 2018).

This tension is clearly locked around the meaning of denuclearisation and the perspectives the two sides have on what this means with the ‘Libya Model` being a case in point. As Friedman outlined,

U.S. officials looked at Libya and saw an encouraging lesson for how to defuse the threat from a rogue state. North Korean officials looked at Libya and saw a cautionary tale for how to not end up dead at the hands of a superpower

The question at the heart of the 12th June Summit thus seems, in my opinion, to centre on the resolving of a complex political dilemma: how to resolve North Korea’s security concerns regarding its continued and long-term survival without a nuclear deterrence whilst fulfilling the US’s desire to see North Korea denuclearised and presumably maintain its existing relationship with South Korea and to a lesser extent Japan. To this conundrum there is appears no easy answer which will satisfy both sides or that can be resolved in a single, all-encompassing summit. If the ‘Libyan Model` spat has demonstrated anything it is that the US and North Korea’s relationship is a fragile as ever and needs consistent and determined effort to counter decades of hostility, entrenched ‘enemy images` and ‘bad-faith` thinking. By this I mean ‘a belief that another state has shown by its actions that it has hostile intent` against which the only answer is the development of ‘countervailing military capacities` i.e nuclear weapons and by ‘bad-faith` thinking in which is a state’s behaviour is interpreted by another according to the enemy image it hold as thus all actions are seen as either (and only as) a trick or a sign of weakness   (Wheeler, 2018, pp. 10-11).

Addressing these issues may not bring the type of success a businessman like Trump is looking for but arguable it is the only way to bring about long-term improved relations between North Korea and the US, which must be seen as a good thing.  Whether the 12th June Summit in Singapore takes place or not, there appears to be a resilient hostility between both the US and North Korea and a consistent evaluation of each other’s behaviour as demonstrating that hostility which will only undermine any attempts to bridge the gap between the two states. If the summit does take place, will it be enough to break those ‘enemy images` and the ‘bad-faith` thinking of both sides or will its serve only to add fuel to the fire of dire US-North Korea relations that has been a fixture of international politics for months.

We will have to wait and see.


BBC, (8th June 2018), ‘Trump-Kim Summit: North Korea leader may get US invite` available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-44406498 (Accessed on 8th June 2018).

BBC (26th May 2018), ‘Korean leaders meet in surprise summit` available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-44265287 (Accessed on 8th June 2018).

Borger, Julian, The Guardian,  (9th March 2018), ‘Kim Jong-un to meet Trump by May after North Korea invitation`, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/08/donald-trump-north-korea-kim-jong-un-meeting-may-letter-invite-talks-nuclear-weapons (Accessed on 30th May 2018).

Borger, Julian and Haas, Benjamin, The Guardian (24th May 2018), ‘Donald Trump cancels North Korea nuclear summit` available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/24/trump-cancels-north-korea-nuclear-summit (Accessed on 8th June 2018).

Borger, Julian and Smith, David, The Guardian (10th May 2018), ‘Trump confirms face-to-face talks with Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June`, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/10/summit-between-donald-trump-and-kim-jong-un-will-take-place-in-singapore-report (Accessed on 8th June 2018).

Friedman, Uri, The Atlantic, (24th May 2018), ‘The Word That Derailed the Trump-Kim Summit` available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/libya-trump-kim/561158/ (Accessed on 8th June 2018).

Liptak, Kevin, CNN Politics, (1st June 2018), ‘Trump says Singapore Summit with Kim is back on` available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/01/politics/trump-north-korea-letter/index.html (8th June 2018).

Kim, Tong-Hyung, The Washington Post, (2nd June 2018), ‘Pushing the envelope: Why was Kim’s letter for Trump so big?` available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/pushing-the-envelope-why-was-kims-letter-for-trump-so-big/2018/06/02/87713208-6636-11e8-81ca-bb14593acaa6_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c2b3611c7f2f (Accessed on 8th June 2018).

Morris, Nigel and Buncombe, Andrew, The Independent, (20th December 2003), ‘Libya gives up nuclear and chemical weapons`, available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/libya-gives-up-nuclear-and-chemical-weapons-83350.html (Accessed on 8th June 2018).

Specia, Megan and Sanger, David E, New York Times, (16th May 2018), ‘How the ‘Libya Model` Became a Sticking Point in North Korea Nuclear Talks`, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/16/world/asia/north-korea-libya-model.html (Accessed on 8th June 2018).

Tatum, Sophie and Griffiths, James, CNN Politics (22nd May 2018), ‘Pence: North Korea will end like Libya only if ‘Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal` available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/05/21/politics/mike-pence-fox-news-north-korea/index.html (Accessed on 8th June 2018).

The Guardian (24th May 2018), ‘Trump’s letter to Kim Jong-un to cancel summit: read it in full` available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/24/trump-north-korea-letter-kim-jong-un-cancel-summit (Accessed on 8th June 2018).

Wadhams, Nick, Time, (April 8th 2018), ‘Kim Jong-Un Has Offered to Talk Denuclearization With President Trump, U.S Official Says` available at: http://time.com/5232582/kim-jong-un-dunclearization-trump/ (Accessed on 30th May 2018).

Wheeler, Nicholas J, (2018), Trusting Enemies: Interpersonal Relationships in International Conflict, (Oxford University Press: Oxford).

Wheeler, Nicholas J. and Holmes, Marcus, The Conversation (March 13th 2018), ‘Lessons for Trump-Kim summit from Reagan and Gorbachev: trust and reassurance before denuclearisation`, available at: https://theconversation.com/lessons-for-trump-kim-summit-from-reagan-and-gorbachev-trust-and-reassurance-before-denuclearisation-93250 (Accessed on 14th May 2018).

Article by David Wilcox


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