Kim Jong Un Wants Trump to Win in 2020, Former White House Adviser Says: 'All the Bad Guys Want Trump to Win'

Two former senior U.S. diplomats have warned that President Donald Trump's North Korea strategy is unlikely to bear fruit in the near future, as an ominous end-of-year ultimatum from Kim Jong Un looms over stalled negotiations.

Former United States Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun and former Director for Asian Affairs in the White House's National Security Council Victor Cha both spoke to Newsweek at the end of a barren year for American and North Korean negotiators, with no real progress made on denuclearization or sanctions relief.

Trump and his supporters consider North Korea a foreign policy win, and the president regularly claims that the historic detente between him and Kim could not have been achieved under any of his predecessors.

The unexpected outbreak of diplomacy certainly allowed both nations to step back from the brink of conflict in early 2018. But since the historic summit in Singapore in June last year optimism has waned, particularly after the collapse of the second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.

As 2019 draws to a close, negotiators remain at loggerheads over how, when and to what extent North Korea should denuclearize in exchange for sanctions relief. In the meantime, Pyongyang has continued developing its military capabilities and entrenching its nuclear status.

Yun, who was a U.S. special representative from October 2016 to March 2018, said that since Hanoi the North Koreans "have been very, very difficult."

North Korea has reverted to its belligerent brand of diplomacy, insulting Trump and key aides such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pyongyang has warned that the U.S. should expect a "Christmas gift" if no progress is made by then.

"I think they do feel that, in Hanoi, Trump kind of stiffed them," Yun explained. Kim traveled all the way to Hanoi—an especially long journey seeing as he travels using a personalized train—expecting a deal, but Trump did not go for the one on offer.

Yun suggested that a key frustration in Pyongyang is the feeling that the U.S. has not fully recognized the country's nuclear and missile capabilities. Yun said Kim thought that by showing his military strength he could extract a higher price from the U.S., but it has not worked out that way.

Though Kim has resumed regular short- and medium-range missile tests, he has held off intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or nuclear warhead demonstrations. Observers have warned that a test of such significant weapons might be the "gift" Kim is preparing.

Cha was tipped to be Trump's next ambassador to South Korea, but fell out of favor in late 2017 after publicly denouncing suggestions of a limited strike against North Korea. He also served as President George W. Bush's top adviser on North Korea.

"We can never say never," Cha told Newsweek when asked of the chances of a deal before the end of 2019. That said, all the signs point to "some sort of a big demonstration" by the North in the coming week.

Whether the test is of an ICBM, a new type of solid rocket propellant engine or something else, Cha said it will be designed to "demonstrate more survivability" of North Korea's capabilities.

Either way, Cha said he does not think the world is back on a path to "fire and fury," with the U.S. and North Korea facing off and threatening nuclear war. "I don't think Trump has the stomach for going back to that in a campaign year," he explained. "That's not a good position for him to be in."

Yun agreed that a deal would be better for the president's political fortunes than a nuclear standoff. However, he also said he thinks Trump would have to respond to an ICBM test, even if it risks a fresh diplomatic crisis.

"Trump has to react very strongly, I think that would force his hand," Yun explained, adding that much of the president's "boasting" centers on stopping ICBM and nuclear tests.

Cha suggested that a quick deal could be secured if the U.S. decided to lift some sanctions early—the same kind of deal the North wanted at the Hanoi summit. But this might be seen as a defeat for Trump if he does not get something significant in return, regardless of how he spins it.

Yun said that the president would like a deal, but what is stopping him is "the amount of criticism that he would face if he made a bad deal," including from within his own administration.

Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, North Korea
President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un talk before a meeting in the Demilitarized Zone on June 30, 2019, in the truce village of Panmunjom, North Korea. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

North Korea could feature prominently in the 2020 election. Cha said this is not because it has become a more pressing issue, but rather because Trump's opponent can frame his failed denuclearization efforts as evidence of diplomatic incompetence.

While negotiations with Pyongyang have stalled, Trump has been demanding that South Korea and Japan pay hundreds of millions of dollars more to host tens of thousands of U.S. troops based there. He has also been blasé about the North's short-range missile tests, despite serious concern from regional allies.

Last week, the U.S. and South Korea were unable to agree on additional payments to retain U.S. troops on the peninsula, raising the possibility that Trump may withdraw a portion of America's forces. Cha said this will prompt serious questions about the future of the alliance.

Such diplomacy "doesn't give—not just South Korea and Japan but other allies—a whole lot of confidence that Trump in a second term is going to be more ally-friendly," Cha said. "That's the bigger crisis that's coming," he added.

The issue of cost-sharing—whether in East Asia, Europe or elsewhere—is "a real wrench in the system," Cha said. "It really epitomizes Trump in the sense that he monetizes these alliance relationships."

The transactional approach to alliance is reminiscent of a "protection racket," Yun said. "That doesn't go down well" with allies, he warned. "It speaks volumes about lack of organization, lack of process, lack of strategy within the administration," he added. "That will be the narrative of this administration's foreign policy."

Withdrawing U.S. troops from the South would also be "the biggest gift that you could give to China and North Korea," Cha argued.

"They don't celebrate Christmas but it's a Christmas gift," he said of China watching Trump exact more money from his allies. "It's winning influence in Asia without having to do anything, just watching the United States shoot itself in the foot."

Yun said that regional allies are starting to doubt America's commitment to Northern denuclearization.

"How long is it until that we can resist South Korean calls for their own nuclear weapons?" he asked. "I think that's a very fundamental question that we have to think about."

Whoever wins the 2020 election, the North Korea issue is not going away. "Unless something changes by 2021, they will be a nuclear power with a survivable nuclear capability," Cha explained.

This will force the next president to make a choice, Cha added. "Are they going to continue to propagate the fiction that we're aimed at denuclearization or are we going to have to deal with them in some way?"

This means making ensure the North is deterred from using nuclear weapons and to ensure that there is no "nuclear leakage"—i.e. allowing nuclear technology to spread to other nations—Cha said. "It's going to be a very difficult choice."

This could take the form of arms control talks, rather than denuclearization negotiations, Yun said. This might mean limitations on the number of warheads and the range that nuclear-armed missiles could reach, he explained. "I think most people do not see complete denuclearization within a reasonable time period as possible," Yun said.

From Pyongyang's side, Cha believes Kim will be hoping for another four years of Trump. "I think it's fair to say that all the 'bad guys' want Trump to win," he joked, "maybe with the exception of Iran."

Yun concurred. "I think they definitely want Trump to be re-elected," he said. "No other president has worked with North Korea, and that's not because they had the opportunity...he is willing to deal with them, willing to listen to their concerns, and willing to change his mind."

"There's no question in my mind that they're not going to get anyone better in the White House than Trump."

North Korea, ICBM, missile, nuclear weapons, Trump
A man watches a television news screen reporting latest developments on North Korea's missile launch as the screen shows file footage, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea on October 2, 2019. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty