President Trump faced bipartisan condemnation when he called North Korea's brutal dictator "a smart cookie" and suggested it would be an "honor" to meet with Kim Jong Un face-to-face to try to resolve the impasse over his unconstrained pursuit of the capability to threaten the U.S. with nuclear weapons.
Take, for example, Sen. Lindsey Graham's withering criticism.
"I'd find it very hard for me to sit down across the table from the guy who makes Bashar al-Assad look like a choirboy," Graham said on CNN this month. "If you understand what he does to his own people, you'd be repugnant to be in the same room."
But some foreign policy experts argue that after the abject failure of three successive presidential administrations, Trump's overture to Kim, however distasteful to some, may be just the ticket to avoiding the collision course that could result in a costly second Korean war. That possibility became even more clear on Saturday, when a North Korean diplomat said Pyongyang is willing to hold talks with Washington "under the right conditions," South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, although the statement came out a day before the regime launched yet another missile.
If the U.S. were to take steps toward direct negotiations, it has to take a certain set of conditions for granted, one expert said.
"North Korea has come to believe that nuclear weapons are its only protection," wrote Eric Li, a political scientist based in Shanghai.
"The fate of Moammar Gaddafi, who had given up Libya's nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of American-led economic sanctions, is not lost on the North," Li wrote in an opinion piece this month in The Washington Post. "Obama sided with Arab Spring insurgents after Gaddafi's violent crackdown on them, and the Libyan leader died on a desert highway, trying to escape the rebels."
Li argues the critical mistake made by both the Bush and Obama administrations is the simultaneous pursuit of two conflicting goals: the immediate denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and eventual toppling of the communist government.
Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear that the U.S. now has a single goal of convincing Kim that for him to retain his grip on power, he must give up his nuclear arsenal.
"Our goal is not regime change. Nor do we desire to threaten the North Korean people or destabilize the Asia-Pacific region," Tillerson said at the United Nations last month. "We look forward to resuming our contributions once the DPRK begins to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile technology programs."
The appeal to the North comes amid a confluence of potentially fortuitous events, including Trump's successful re-engagement with China's President Xi Jinping and the election of a new liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who wants to revive the South's "sunshine" policy of diplomatic and economic outreach toward the North.
Moon, like Trump, has offered to meet with Kim Jong Un and has even talked about reopening a joint industrial park that was closed last year to deprive the North of revenue.
But the U.S. president needs to be careful not to be overconfident about his deal-making skills, argued former U.S. negotiator Chris Hill in a recent BBC radio interview.
Hill spent four years trying to make a deal with Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, during the administration of President George W. Bush, only to conclude the regime was simply not willing to give up its nuclear security blanket.
"We sat down with the North Koreans and said, 'What do you want to give up your nuclear weapons?' And they said 'We want a peace treaty.' You got it. They wanted energy assistance, economic assistance, all these things we packaged together in an agreement," Hill said.
"But at the end of the day North Korea was not prepared to have any kind of verification, so we had to take their word for it if they were stopping the production of nuclear weapons, and ultimately that was something we absolutely couldn't live with."
Hill concedes that Trump's negotiating style, in which he says the president "skates on a very thin fact base," may succeed in a way that the more studious, traditional diplomacy has failed miserably.
"He looks at all that and says the heck with that, I can just kinda go in there, seat of the pants and try to solve this," Hill said. "I mean, look, if it works it's absolutely wonderful, but just because it hasn't been solved before doesn't mean it's going to be solved without cracking a briefing book."
Trump's statement that he would be honored to meet with Kim came in an interview with Bloomberg and included the caveat that it would have to occur "under the right circumstances." It was that comment that prompted the North Korean message on Saturday.
Tillerson laid out those circumstances at the United Nations.
"We will not negotiate our way back to the negotiating table with North Korea. We will not reward their violations of past resolutions. We will not reward their bad behavior with talks," Tillerson said.
"We will only engage in talks with North Korea when they exhibit a good-faith commitment to abiding by the Security Council resolutions and their past promises to end their nuclear programs."
China is still seen as the key to pressuring North Korea to reverse course, and Hill, a veteran diplomat, said the "great chemistry" that Trump said he felt with China's Xi after the Mar-a-Lago summit seems to also be a legitimate factor.
"I think many of the Chinese like Trump's style. They like the decisiveness. They feel they can understand it better. They didn't know what President Obama meant by 'strategic patience,' so when they hear this guy getting up and saying this has to be resolved, they kinda like the directness."
China can certainly do more to put economic pressure on North Korea, and Trump is convinced that Xi wants to help the U.S. defuse the crisis.
"You know I have a lot of respect for President Xi," Trump said in an interview with Time magazine last week. "We've never had the relationship that we have now."
But Trump quickly added, "In all fairness to President Xi, he loves China, he loves his people and he is representing the people of China. He's not representing the people of the United States. So we'll see how that all turns out."