When President Donald Trump sits across from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, this week, he will be flanked by a delegation of officials not always in agreement on the best strategy to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons.
On the other side of the table, the delegation from Pyongyang is weathering its own type of flux: the onetime lead negotiator finds himself replaced as Kim Jong Un shakes up his team.
The personnel dynamics on both sides add a layer of intrigue to the high-stakes diplomacy underway this week in the Vietnamese capital. And while US officials and North Korea experts say the ultimate outcome of the talks will depend on the two leaders themselves, their teams’ make-up will inform the underpinnings of any agreements.
On the US side, Trump is relying on Stephen Biegun, the former Ford Motor Company executive he named special envoy for the North Korea talks, to spearhead negotiations. That’s meant multiple trips to Pyongyang, in addition to talks in Washington, Sweden and, this week, in Hanoi.
It took several months for North Korea to name a counterpart. But in January, Kim Hyok Chol arrived with a North Korean delegation in Washington, setting off another series of talks that US officials said helped break a months-long deadlock between the two sides.
Appointed in August, Biegun came aboard after Trump’s inaugural meeting with Kim in Singapore. His presence won’t be the only change from that first sit-down: since the June encounter, chief of staff John Kelly has been replaced with Mick Mulvaney, who is filling the role in an acting capacity.
Biegun previously served as a GOP operative on Capitol Hill and advised then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin when she was the Republican vice presidential nominee. He’s worked closely alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who Trump has tasked with leading the diplomatic efforts with North Korea.
Yet since assuming his post over the summer, Biegun has drawn private skepticism from other members of Trump’s national security team, according to officials familiar with the matter. As Trump continues to press for agreements with North Korea that can demonstrate progress, some officials have expressed concern that Biegun may be overly willing to take steps that would satisfy the President’s desire to make a deal, and not encourage tough demands from Kim.
He said during a closely watched speech at Stanford University last month that North Korea expects their steps toward dismantling some enrichment facilities should be met with “corresponding measures” from the US, and he was set to find out which exact measures they were thinking about – a different approach than demanding complete denuclearization before taking reciprocal action.
For some inside the Trump administration, that’s wrongheaded. Trump advisers, including national security adviser John Bolton, have favored maintaining full pressure on North Korea – including though sanctions – until the country has no choice but to cede to US demands.
Bolton, who paid his own visit to Seoul ahead of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, has voiced a more hawkish approach, sometimes to the President’s displeasure. After he raised the “Libya model” of removing nuclear weapons ahead of first summit in Singapore – which, to Kim’s ears, smacked of regime change and the grisly demise of Moammar Gadhafi – Trump was furious, according to people familiar with the matter. The President privately asked his team “what the f**k” Bolton thought he was doing, and largely sidelined him from the North Korea portfolio.
As Biegun proceeds with his diplomatic efforts, he has told people he is looking to maintain US principles in the talks while also allowing for a degree of flexibility to prevent North Korea from walking away from the table, as they have done multiple times in the past. It’s an artful approach, people familiar with his strategy say, that amounts to balancing the President’s demands with finding openings for progress.
Bolton, meanwhile, has agitated to other senior administration aides that Biegun’s approach isn’t stringent enough – and that the US must demand more from North Korea upfront before easing any pressure.
Ultimately, any decision to award or withhold corresponding steps to North Korea will come down to Trump, who has caught aides off-guard in the past with his negotiating tactics. His decision to suspend US-South Korea war exercises after the summit meeting in Singapore came as a shock both in Seoul and at the Pentagon. That unpredictability – and his willingness to go further than his advisers – has led to the impression North Korea prefers to deal directly with him, rather than through his emissaries.
The US also appears to have its own preferred North Korean participants in the negotiations. After several months of stalemate, which a senior US official attributed to “some internal issues that (North Korea) were reviewing,” a new envoy emerged in the New Year. Kim Hyok Chol – Biegun’s new negotiating counterpart – replaced Choe Son Hui, who led the nuclear negotiations leading up to the Singapore summit.
There are other reported shakeups on Kim Jong Un’s team as well, driven by the young dictator’s skepticism of veteran diplomats and his desire to work toward an agreement with the US. One key player remains, however: Kim Jong Chol, the former spy chief who has led delegations to the White House and delivered the oversized letters Kim has written to Trump.
Kim Jong Chol hasn’t always been a constructive player, US officials have suggested. For example, last time Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang, Kim Jong Chol greeted him on the tarmac and immediately demanded that Pompeo come into the meeting with Kim Jong Un without his bodyguard and his translator. Briefing reporters on Thursday ahead of the summit, a senior administration official recalled a meeting in July between Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Chol, that ended in a sour statement from Pyongyang blaming Pompeo for “gangster-like” demands of denuclearization.
A subsequent meeting in October with Kim Jong Un himself, which the official pointedly noted did not include Kim Jong Chol, was “excellent.”