Joint Public Issues Team Blog

Joint Public Issues Team Blog

Could Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un establish a relationship of trust?

Posted: 08 Jun 2018 07:42 AM PDT

The Trump/Kim summit due to take place in Singapore on Tuesday 12 June is a meeting of historic significance. There has never been a face-to-face meeting between a sitting US President and a leader of the North Korea (DPRK). If all goes well, we might see a plan for the de-escalation of hostilities.

Whether or not agreements are reached, this face-to-face meeting has the potential to build a new understanding of ‘the other’ at the highest level of US and North Korean leadership.

An understanding on the part of senior political leaders in the West of what makes Kim Jong Un ‘tick’ would be novel and could be transformative.  The starting point is often a simplistic view of the government of North Korea.  The regime locks up, tortures and kills its own people and rejects a western commitment to individual political rights.[1] Consequently, Western political leadership perceives the regime and its leader to be morally bankrupt and incorrigible (and even a part of an ‘axis of evil’).  In contrast, foreign diplomats or others who have been close to the regime tend to see things a little differently. Some have argued that the North Korean government’s recent bellicose behaviour towards neighbours and the international community can be seen as entirely rational acts to bring about the best possible political outcomes for the country.  The fact that this summit is taking place at all would seem to bear this out.

It is worth pausing to consider the circumstances under which face-to-face dialogue between leaders of nations has scope to transform adversarial state relationships.  I believe that even at the highest levels of government (with capable intelligence and diplomatic services at their disposal) there is scope for serious misinterpretation of the characteristics of another state and its leaders.  One reason for this is our own poor self-awareness and lack of objectivity. We typically find it difficult to perceive that Western capitalist expansion, driven in part by objectives of self-gratification and greed and accompanied by overwhelming military capability, can be perceived as highly threatening in some parts of the world. This inadequate perception of ‘self’ leads us to misinterpret the responses of others who may see us differently.  This failure of states to achieve ‘sensibility’ is a part of a security dilemma that causes a downward spiral in state-to-state relations.[2] 711w” sizes=”(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px” />
Houses of Parliament, 12 July 2018,

Interestingly, research by Prof. Nicholas Wheeler, University of Birmingham[3], shows how Reagan and Gorbachev developed relationship of personal trust even in the midst of intense state hostility, mistrust and suspicion.   They each placed faith in the word of the other.[4] This capacity for trust grew out of a private fireside chat between the two leaders in Geneva in 1985.  The relationship developed over time through further private face-to-face encounters. Nicholas Wheeler argues that the significance of personal trust between leaders of two opposing nations is not well enough appreciated or understood in the academic field of international relations or in policy circles.  He will discuss this topic in a meeting in Parliament arranged by the Council for Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament.[5]

The process of face-to-face relationship seems to be critical in the development a personal rapport that can transform relations between states. Now, at this point I can sense a barrage of critical correspondence coming my way, so let me clarify. I am not sure that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have the personal qualities that would enable them to develop a relationship of the quality enjoyed by Reagan and Gorbachev. My point is more nuanced than that; it is that at the summit, a face-to-face encounter could be set up, with a degree of privacy that allows the possibility for an honest sharing to take place the two leaders. A realistic aspiration would be for each party to gain a revelation in how the other perceives them. Similar private opportunities should be afforded to other counterparts in the respective government’s delegations. The understanding that members of the US and North Korean delegations might achieved through such human encounter could be essential in achieving follow through on written agreements that hopefully will arise from the summit.

Over the coming weeks and months, we might look for signs (beyond the public pronouncements and tweets) that indicate an improvement in the quality of each government’s understanding of the other.



[1] I am not denying this reality. Nor am I denying that Kim Jong-un might not have megalomaniac tendencies: he would not be alone among world leaders if this were the case.

[2] This is a well-recognised phenomenon in academic ‘international studies’ circles

[3] Wheeler, Nicholas J, Trusting Enemies, Oxford University Press, 2018 ISBN: 9780199696475

See also commentary on the Trump/Kim summit here

[4] This does not affect how Reagan and Gorbachev would perceive their personal duty or interest which remains, first and foremost, to advance their own nation’s self-interest.

[5] For further information on this event, email

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