At the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea on Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump put himself just where he likes to be: at center stage, showcasing his supposedly unmatched negotiating skills without net or supporting cast. The U.S. would have a better chance of reaching a lasting deal with Pyongyang if he now withdrew to the wings.

The kind of personal diplomacy Trump favors can have its place. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un cut off negotiations after being embarrassed by the failure of his last summit with Trump in Hanoi. Though the North hasn’t tested a nuclear weapon or long-range missile since then, its weapons programs have continued unchecked. If Trump’s handshake on the border gives Kim the cover he needs to agree to restart talks, it will have served some purpose.

At the same time, the main issues that divide the two nations remain as intractable as ever. Kim wants sanctions on North Korea lifted as quickly as possible. The U.S. has resisted granting such relief until after the North has agreed to eliminate its nuclear and long-range missile stockpiles and production facilities, which Kim’s regime sees as critical to its survival. Riven by such irreconcilable goals, any new talks face bleak odds.

If reports are correct, the Trump administration may be relenting slightly, aiming for a more phased approach that would begin with dismantling known production facilities and thus freezing the size of the North’s arsenals. The success of any such strategy will depend crucially on painstakingly negotiated details: which sites will be included, how the process will be monitored and verified, what the U.S. will give up in return, what comes next.

How much the U.S. concedes will have to be calibrated carefully against what exactly Kim offers. Largely symbolic measures, such as opening a diplomatic liaison office in Pyongyang or declaring an official end to the Korean War, are rightfully on the table. With appropriate safeguards, the U.S. could even allow some economic cooperation projects between the two Koreas to start up again. Any broader sanctions relief must be tied to airtight, verifiable concessions by the North.

Trump’s seat-of-the-pants style isn’t suited to such slow and frustrating bargaining. Indeed, his weakness for spectacle has already come at no small cost to U.S. credibility and leverage.

Any negotiations beholden to Trump’s whim and electoral calendar are likely doomed from the start. His administration has shown it’s capable of serious diplomacy. Its talks with the Taliban over withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan have proceeded quietly and patiently, out of the spotlight and led by experts; they appear to be making steady if slow progress. Trump will have a better chance of reaching the blockbuster North Korea bargain he craves if he lets someone else close the deal.

Editorial by Bloomberg News

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