Donald Trump declared while running for the presidency that he would be happy to sit down and “have a hamburger” with Kim Jong-un. He rounded on those deriding his naivety on international affairs with: “What the hell’s wrong with speaking? And you know what? It’s called opening a dialogue!”
But after getting to the White House, upon being urged to tone down talk of smiting North Korea with “fire and fury the like of which the world has never seen”, Trump scoffed that his predecessors “have been talking to them for 25 years” and have been made to “look like fools!”
“Sorry, but only one thing will work! I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with the Little Rocket Man!”
It should perhaps be unsurprising that Trump has made another volte face in keeping with the chaotic and unpredictable nature of his administration, but the news that he is now prepared to meet Kim Jong-un face to face, and as early as in two months’ time, is an extraordinary development.
So who now has the upper hand after the trading of public insults and rocket-rattling between Trump and Kim Jong-un? The most immediate victor is the North Korean leader. He has succeeded in getting direct, bilateral talks, something successive US Presidents have rejected in the past as it would have been seen as rewarding Pyongyang for its bad behaviour and acknowledging equality of status.
No serving US President has ever met a North Korean leader. Bill Clinton attempted carrots and sticks in the form of sanction and aid; George W Bush just sticks with sanctions. Barack Obama got too fed up to offer either. Trump has, so far, offered sticks and tweets and confusing messages on carrots.
Trump, however, professes supreme confidence in his own talent as dealmaker: as someone who can personally produce something, because of his personality, others cannot. He has, so far, signally failed in achieving anything internationally through his supposed magnetism, whether it be in the Middle East, coming to an understanding with China or renegotiating trade deals.
This, however, is not a handicap to a narcissist and no doubt the US President will approach the talks with the belief that he can get what he wants from Kim Jong-un. It is his super-tough approach which has, he has claimed, brought about this result.
In reality, Pyongyang has had to do little to get the talks. There was the well-orchestrated attendance to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, and now the offer of temporary suspension of missile and nuclear tests. They have certainly not agreed to abandon them in the future.
There will be no further objections to this year’s joint military exercises by Seoul and Washington. But North Korea could not have stopped them taking place anyway.
And South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in can claim the lion’s share of credit for the summit.
The US and its allies in the region have been concerned that his attempts at reconciliation with his northern counterpart may begin to look like appeasement and further embolden Pyongyang. There was worry that Moon’s invitation to the North, to attend the Olympics and start inter-Korea talks, would be used by Kim Jong-un to drive a wedge between the South and the US and Japan.
But Moon has managed to diffuse a growing row by quickly accepting Trump’s demand that the US President should be credited for making the inter-Korea talks happen by his stern stance.
There has been general welcome internationally to the meeting. The Chinese foreign ministry spoke of the need “for all parties to maintain the momentum”. In Moscow, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov hoped this would “open a way for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue”.
Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan – which faces a very real threat from Pyongyang’s missiles – stressed the need for keeping full pressure on North Korea “until there are concrete steps towards denuclearisation”.
So Trump will get his chance after all to have a hamburger with Kim Jong-un and open a dialogue, although it remains far from certain that lasting peace and amity will break out as a result.
At the recent Gridiron dinner with journalists, where the President traditionally displays wit in his speech, Trump talked of negotiating with North Korea’s leader and observed: “As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned – well that’s his problem, not mine.”
We will have to wait and see what plans Kim Jong-un makes for the historic encounter.