North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is shown reading a personal letter from US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP/KCNA Via KNS

“It’s hard to fault President Donald Trump for having tried personal diplomacy,” a diplomatic analyst said in an Asia Times article on Wednesday. “His belief in his personal powers of persuasion and ‘only I can fix it’ approach were a good fit for negotiating with a country in which only one opinion matters,” wrote former US diplomat Mark Tokola. “No matter what the process, Kim Jong Un would have had to be there at the end.” 

But Tokola concluded that a new approach is needed from 2021. “The next round with North Korea, if there is one, must involve serious working-level engagement. The role of summits should be to ratify agreements, not to negotiate them.”

And now, as if not only to back Tokola up on this but also to emphasize that progress will require a new occupant of the White House, we have from Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, many details of how North Korea policy and diplomacy/statecraft in general under Trump are FUBAR. (I’ve chosen a pungent World War II US military term that means fouled up beyond all recognition / any repair / all reason.)

“I met. Big fucking deal,” Trump said to Woodward regarding his three in-person meetings with Kim. “It takes me two days. I met. I gave up nothing.”

But of course, as The Washington Post notes in its preview of the Woodward book, Trump did give Kim something: reduced joint US-South Korean military exercises and – simply by meeting him – “the international stature and legitimacy the North Korean regime has long craved.”

What did Trump get in return? Flattery. According to Woodward, the US president expressed delight that Kim had addressed him as “Your Excellency.”

In fact the North Korean dictator did so repeatedly, in personal letters. In one, Kim said he wanted “another historic meeting between myself and Your Excellency reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film.” Kim described the meetings between the two as a “precious memory” that underscored how the “deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force.”

From another Kim letter to Trump: “I feel pleased to have formed good ties with such a powerful and pre-eminent statesman as Your Excellency.”

And let no one forget “that moment of history when I firmly held Your Excellency’s hand at the beautiful and sacred location as the whole world watched with great interest and hope to relive the honor of that day.”

North Korea’s professional America-watchers have good English, are pretty smart and spend their whole careers in that field. It is clear that they nailed Trump’s monumental ego and his peculiar, superlative-laden salesman’s talk as they composed those letters for their boss to send.

They really had him going.

Bradley K Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.