By Susan B. Glasser

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“They want to know if he’s crazy,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, “or if this is just an act.”

“They” is North Korean officials. And “he” is Donald Trump. Four times over the last year, in Geneva, Pyongyang, Oslo and Moscow, DiMaggio has secretly met with North Koreans to talk about the country’s nuclear program. But what they really want to talk about, DiMaggio said in an extensive new interview for The Global Politico, is America’s volatile president.

The North Koreans have asked her not only if Trump is nuts, DiMaggio said, but what and how to think about everything from his public undercutting of his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible campaign collusion with Russia.

“They really want to know what is his end game,” said DiMaggio, a scholar at New America who specializes in talking with rogue regimes and has spent nearly two decades in secret discussions with the North Koreans. She believes they were ready after Trump’s surprise election to discuss a new round of official talks with the U.S. to defuse the standoff over their nuclear weapons – but that Trump’s escalating rhetoric and Twitter rants such as his weekend taunting of North Korea’s “short and fat” Kim Jong Un may have foreclosed that option. “They follow the news very closely; they watch CNN 24/7; they read his tweets and other things.”

Among issues the North Koreans have raised with her in recent months, DiMaggio said, were everything from Trump’s tweet urging Tillerson to give up on diplomacy with North Korea (“Is this a good cop/bad cop that he’s doing with Tillerson?”) to Trump’s decision this fall to decertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal forged by his predecessor, Barack Obama. That, DiMaggio said, “has sent a clear signal to the North Koreans: Why should they enter a deal with us, if we’re not going to stick with it?”

“They question his erratic behavior, and also his mounting problems here at home, with the investigation being conducted by Robert Mueller, and they are asking, ‘Why should we begin negotiations with the Trump administration, when Donald Trump may not be president much longer?’”

***

For years, DiMaggio and Joel Wit, a longtime U.S. diplomat turned scholar at Johns Hopkins University who founded the influential North Korea-watching website 38North, have been quietly meeting with North Koreans to talk about the country’s nuclear program. In the past they hardly acknowledged the conversations, part of a “Track 2” dialogue that has kept a line open to the isolated dictatorship even when the two governments officially were not on speaking terms.

But that was before Trump.

In their meetings with the North Koreans since Trump was elected, DiMaggio and Wit watched their growing alarm and confusion as an initial outreach after the election testing U.S. reaction to new nuclear talks descended into a Trumpian fury of name-calling, mutual recriminations and military escalation. Now she and Wit are speaking out despite their past reluctance even to acknowledge the North Korean meetings, describing them in a recent New York Times op-ed and adding new detail in this week’s episode of our Global Politico podcast. “I don’t normally talk about my ‘Track 2′ work in such a public way,” DiMaggio tweeted. “But these are far from normal times.”

Their account comes at a fraught moment in the burgeoning crisis with North Korea, with Trump wrapping up a 12-day Asia tour after sending confusing and contradictory signals. The president initially projected an uncharacteristically diplomatic approach on the trip, suggesting a new openness to negotiations as a way out of the nuclear impasse, delivering a strongly worded address in Seoul about North Korea’s human rights abuses, and pressing the Chinese in Beijing to make common cause with the U.S. on stepped-up sanctions against the neighboring North Korean regime.

But even before a final stop in Manila, Trump was back into a war of words with Kim that seemed to undercut the trip’s scripted statesmanship. While DiMaggio and Wit had no definitive answer for the North Koreans when they had asked if Trump was crazy, the North Koreans clearly came to their own conclusion. Responding to Trump’s Seoul speech, North Korea’s state media called him a “lunatic old man” looking to start a nuclear war. It warned that the United States faced an “abyss of doom” unless it gets rid of Trump and abandons his “hostile policy.”

Trump seemed more miffed at the attack on his age than his sanity. Abandoning the carefully formulated statements of his advisers, he tweeted back his outrage about being called old, while insisting, perhaps tongue in cheek, that he had tried to become a “friend” to Kim and sarcastically claiming that at least he had never called the rotund young dictator “short and fat.”

Even before that exchange, DiMaggio and Wit told me Trump’s penchant for insulting the North Koreans and their leader in unusually personal terms violated rule No. 1 of what the U.S. government has learned over the years about interacting with the North Koreans: “Whatever you do, don’t personally insult this man,” as DiMaggio put it.

In fact, the name-calling repeats an American tactic that has backfired with previous North Korean leaders. “The idea that the administration has—and particularly President Trump—that escalating threats is going to make the North Koreans be more flexible, is wrong. Escalating threats only make North Koreans more inflexible,” Wit said. “Being gratuitously tough, “ he added later, “is a big mistake, because the North Koreans can be tough as nails themselves, and for them, being weak is like committing suicide.”

But Trump has once again gone in for tough talk anyway. Will it matter? After all, U.S. presidents have been trying and failing to stop Kim, his father and grandfather for two more than two decades from nuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Still, in the interview, DiMaggio and Wit recounted what they believe to be an overlooked willingness on the part of the North Koreans …read more

Read more here: ‘They Want to Know If Trump’s Crazy’

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