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Why Trump and Kim Jong-un Can’t Stop Flattering Each Other

Two weeks ago, the U.S.-North Korea talks appeared to be on the verge of collapse when President Trump canceled a planned trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang, citing a lack of progress on denuclearization.

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But today, things seem to be (tentatively) back on track, with a flurry of positive messages coming out after a meeting between South Korean envoys and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday. In addition to announcing an upcoming third summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in later this month to discuss “practical measures” toward denuclearization, the South Korean delegation also conveyed Kim’s warm regards for Trump. According to the AP, Moon’s national security adviser said that “Kim told him that he still had faith in Trump despite diplomatic setbacks. He said Kim emphasized that he has not once talked negatively about Trump to anyone, including his closest advisers.”

Trump, naturally, returned the compliment this morning:

None of this means the Americans and the North Koreans actually agree on anything. North Korea wants a declaration to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War, which only ended in an armistice. U.S. officials, however, have balked at the idea, wanting to hold off on such a major concession until North Korea makes concrete moves toward denuclearization, such as providing a full accounting of its current nuclear capabilities and allowing in international inspectors. The North Koreans think they’ve made enough concessions already, such as dismantling a nuclear testing site and sending home the remains of U.S. service members, and want the Americans to respond in kind.

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This issue and others have frustrated talks between the two sides since the initial meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore in June. But through it all, the constant factor has been the mutual admiration expressed between Trump and Kim. Even as evidence was emerging in July that North Korea was in violation of UN sanctions and not beginning the process of dismantling its nuclear weapons, Trump touted a “very nice note” from Kim as a sign that progress was being made. When he announced he was canceling Pompeo’s trip a few week ago, Trump was sure to note, “In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!” Explaining, last week, why Trump was continuing to suspend U.S.-South Korean military exercises, a statement from the White House affirmed that “his relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good and warm one.” As for the lack of progress on denuclearization, Trump has blamed that mostly on China, continuing to vouch for Kim’s good intentions.

For their part, the North Koreans have vouched for Trump as a man of peace, even as they’ve attacked Pompeo and other subordinates for “going against the intention of President Trump.” They may have good reason for believing this. According to a recent Vox report, Trump said at the Singapore summit that he would soon sign a peace treaty—which makes sense given Trump’s public boasts that he would bring an end to the nearly seven-decade old Korean War. So from the North Korean perspective, Trump made promises that his lackeys aren’t fulfilling. In other words, it seems that Kim has concluded that Trump administration officials don’t actually speak for the president, and is acting accordingly.

Recent events do seem to vindicate this belief. Last week, for instance, Trump publicly contradicted his own secretary of defense, James Mattis, by announcing that the military exercises would remain canceled. Then yesterday, an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times by a senior administration official stated that there’s a “two-track presidency” and asserted that members of Trump’s own team are working against his policy preferences, most notably his “preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.”

The North Koreans already suspected that Trump and his underlings weren’t on the same page when it came to dealing with them, and now that suspicion has been confirmed. Expect more flattery from Kim, and Trump’s continued embrace of it, to come.