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'The Unpredictable One' stirs up Korean Peninsula tensions

North Korea fires a missile as it clings to hope of making a deal with Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump has kept his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, left, as well as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in high hopes -- despite repeatedly dashing them. (Original photos by Reuters)

TOKYO -- If one thing is clear about the negotiations between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, it is that the U.S. president, with his erratic policymaking and behavior, never stops muddying the waters and bewildering all involved, especially the leaders of the two Koreas.

Even before the latest talks between U.S. and North Korea on Saturday ended unsuccessfully in Sweden, events leading up to it were convoluted.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was uncertain about the wisdom of leaving Seoul under the current circumstances when he traveled to the U.S. for a meeting with Trump on Sept. 23.

Moon's appointment of scandal-tainted aide Cho Guk as justice minister had set off a political maelstrom in South Korea.

Moon had good reason to be worried about a public backlash against the appointment. Several days later, Cho's home was searched by prosecutors.

But his expectations for the Trump meeting in New York got the better of him.

The North Korean dictatorship of Kim Jong Un also had its attention on New York.

Moon and Kim had been impatient for Trump to make a bold move to restart the stalled U.S.-North Korea negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear program.

South Korea's presidential Blue House was initially cautious toward Moon's trip to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly meeting amid the growing backlash to his appointment of Cho, a protege who has been dubbed "Onion Man" because of the layers of scandal that surround him, according to diplomatic sources.

The diplomatic climate surrounding the U.S.-North Korea relationship began to change a month ago. On Sept. 9, a senior North Korean official said Pyongyang was ready to hold talks with the U.S. in "late September." On the following day, Trump surprised the world by sacking his national security adviser, John Bolton, who had been the White House's leading North Korea hard-liner. Bolton had been arguing that the economic sanctions on North Korea should only be eased after Kim firmly commits to abandoning all his nuclear weapons.

John Bolton, a noted foreign policy hawk, no longer watches over Trump and his handling of the North Korea nuclear issue.   © AP

Two days later, Trump signaled his interest in another summit with Kim by the end of the year.

The South Korean government learned from sources in the U.S. that Kim had sent a personal letter to Trump. There were also signs that Kim may soon visit China.

The air in Seoul and Pyongyang was getting thick with expectations that Trump might drop a bombshell about visiting the North Korean capital.

On Sept. 13, the South Korean presidential office announced Moon's visit to the U.S. and his meeting with Trump.

The last time Trump and Kim met was in February, in Hanoi, but that summit went nowhere and the two sides abruptly left without as much as a handshake in front of the cameras.

Neither can afford another failed summit.

The next Trump-Kim meeting, if it is held, would likely produce an agreement of some kind.

Any deal would boost Moon's ambitions for the future of the Korean Peninsula. Moon has been peddling the gospel of North-South economic cooperation, eventually leading to a peaceful, unified peninsula.

As he faced Trump in New York on Sept. 23, Moon showered the U.S. president with praise and compliments.

"I have to say that I always marvel at your imagination and bold decision-making," Moon said before their meeting. "And when you have your third summit with Chairman Kim, maybe I hope that this will go down as a truly historic moment in world history."

But Moon's barrage of accolades failed to extract from Trump any positively surprising comment on North Korea. The U.S. president merely muttered some familiar refrains, like, "If I weren't President, you'd be at war with North Korea, in my opinion."

When U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 24, he offered no sign that he was working toward a breakthrough with North Korea.   © Reuters

There were no serious discussions regarding the denuclearization of North Korea, let alone about a third U.S.-North Korea summit.

South Korean news media roundly criticized the Moon-Trump meeting, with the Korea Joongang Daily calling it "empty."

In his speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Trump offered no sign that he was working toward a big move. He said little about North Korea except for what he had said before: "I have told Kim Jong Un what I truly believe: that, like Iran, his country is full of tremendous untapped potential, but that to realize that promise, North Korea must denuclearize."

The lack of substance in Trump's comment on North Korea cast a cloud of disappointment over Pyongyang. "Trump has not changed at all," one official said in summing up the mood.

On Sept. 27, Kim Kye Gwan, an adviser to North Korea's Foreign Ministry, issued a statement. "[P]oliticians in Washington are obsessed with 'nuclear disarmament-first,"' it says. They assert that North Korea "can get access to a bright future only when it abandons its nukes first."

The statement suggests Kim was still pinning his hopes on Trump. "But I came to know that President Trump is different from his predecessors in political sense and decision while watching his approach to the DPRK, so I would like to place my hope on President Trump's wise option and bold decision," the statement went on.

This reflects Pyongyang's strategy of "distinguishing Trump from the rest of his administration," according to a source.

Kim Kye Gwan's statement, however, left little doubt that the behind-the-scenes negotiations were going nowhere fast.

Despite the lack of progress, however, North Korea announced the resumption of bilateral talks. On Tuesday, a statement issued under the name of Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said the countries would hold preparatory talks on Friday and working-level talks on Saturday.

It is hard to imagine that a diplomatic breakthrough took place dramatically altering the nature of the talks from Sept. 27 to Tuesday.

Days before North Korea went back to the negotiating table with the U.S., it fired what appears to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile. (Photo released by North Korea's Central News Agency on Oct. 2.)   © Reuters

North Korea does not seem to be ready to give up hope that Trump might acquiesce.

Kim Jong Un has set a deadline for him to do just that, saying he would "wait patiently until the end of the year for the United States to make a bold decision."

North Korea has reorganized its negotiating team, replacing Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the Workers' Party's Central Committee, as lead negotiator and stocking the team with diplomatic experts well versed in issues concerning the U.S. and nuclear arms.

Hours after announcing it had agreed to resume the talks, North Korea fired what it called a submarine-launched ballistic missile, an apparent opening salvo for the new round of negotiations.

In Pyongyang, patience for Trump's noncommittal attitude is wearing out. Officials are sick and tired of trying to fathom the implications of Trump's baffling remarks. One example: "We have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un. We'll see what happens. Maybe we'll be able to make a deal. Maybe not."

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