Days ahead of his second summit with Kim Jong Un, President Trump is redefining success in his bid to force North Korea to relinquish its nuclear program, tamping down public expectations amid evidence that Pyongyang has done little to curb its weapons production.
Trump is hopeful that his bilateral meetings with Kim this week in Hanoi will re-create the international media spectacle of their historic first summit in Singapore last summer — and perhaps distract from mounting domestic political turmoil. But wide gaps remain between U.S. and North Korean negotiators, who have yet to agree on a basic definition of what “denuclearization” means to both sides, according to U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the talks.
Senior Trump aides have privately expressed skepticism over the prospects that a deal can be reached to significantly advance the largely symbolic agreement announced in Singapore. Some fear that Trump could feel pressure to make a major concession to Kim during face-to-face talks, including a one-on-one session, in hopes of securing a reciprocal commitment he can herald as a political victory.
In recent days, Trump has sought to create the conditions to declare the summit a success regardless of the outcome. Having once demanded that the North give up its weapons quickly, Trump said last week he is in “no rush” as long as the regime maintains a testing moratorium on nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles that has been in place since November 2017.
“I have no pressing timetable,” he said, adding that he expects his meeting with Kim in Hanoi won’t be their last.
Trump has portrayed the ratcheting down of tensions with North Korea — after his “fire and fury” rhetoric helped escalate the situation following provocative missile tests by Kim in 2017 — as evidence of his ability to tackle seemingly intractable foreign policy issues that bedeviled his predecessors.
But it’s a risky strategy both politically and from a national security perspective — and one that rests on the shaky proposition that the warm feelings expressed by Trump and Kim, as well as the lack of provocative actions by North Korea, can last much longer even if negotiations fail to deliver more than the broad outlines of the agreement reached in Singapore.
Kim is likely to be well versed in how the summit plays into Trump’s domestic political imperatives. Their meeting Thursday will take place hours after Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, is scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill in a public hearing to testify about his dealings with the president, including a campaign finance violation.
Trump will be eager to divert attention, and some foreign policy experts said that could provide incentives for the president to pursue a splashy announcement — such as a declaration to formally end the Korean War, which has been suspended in an armistice since 1953 — that includes no concrete steps toward curbing production of fissile materials for North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
At a recent news conference in the Rose Garden, Trump said that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize and complained that he has not gotten sufficient credit from the media for his efforts on North Korea.
Yet U.S. intelligence officials testified to Congress last month that it remains unlikely Kim would fully dismantle his arsenal, and some Trump aides, including national security adviser John Bolton, believe the North Koreans cannot be trusted and the talks are destined to fail.
“Talking is not progress; it’s a means to an end,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst on Northeast Asia whose recent analysis for the conservative Heritage Foundation found “no tangible progress” toward denuclearization since Singapore.
“Trump seems to now define them not testing as a success. That’s not a success,” Klingner added, noting that Pyongyang had testing moratoriums for longer stretches during previous U.S. administrations. “If there’s no progress, then at what point does the U.S. say, ‘Look, they’re stringing us along?’”
U.S. negotiators, who are in Hanoi for last-minute talks with their North Korean counterparts ahead of Trump’s arrival late Tuesday, said they are seeking a detailed road map for complete and verifiable denuclearization, while Pyongyang is aiming for relief from punishing international economic sanctions.
Frustrated at the lack of progress in lower-level negotiations since Singapore, the U.S. team has signaled that it is backing off unilateral demands and is willing to consider something closer to the “step-for-step” process, sought by Pyongyang, in which both sides make concessions along the way.
Stephen E. Biegun, the U.S. special envoy to North Korea, reiterated in a speech at Stanford University last month that the United States will not lift sanctions until denuclearization is complete. But he added that his team is seeking to resolve the question of sequencing — “what am I going to do, what are you going to do, and who’s going to act first?”
“We didn’t say we won’t do anything until you do everything,” Biegun said.
Biegun said he does not expect Pyongyang to use the summit to provide an inventory of its nuclear warheads, thought by U.S. intelligence agencies to number about 65, and production facilities — even though others in the administration had suggested such an accounting would be a prerequisite.
But he emphasized that Kim told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last fall that the North would be willing to dismantle and destroy all of its facilities for plutonium and uranium enrichment at “a complex of sites” extending beyond Yongbyon, its main nuclear complex — which he put on the table in talks last year with South Korean President Moon Jae-in — if the United States reciprocates with measures of its own.
Kim has not stated that publicly, and the cost of such an offer is likely to be steep.
For now, South Korea has urged the Trump administration to take a small step forward on sanctions relief by endorsing modest inter-Korean economic and tourism partnerships that are barred under a web of U.N. sanctions, including the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex that was shuttered in 2016. Washington and Pyongyang are also reportedly discussing establishing permanent liaison offices to make communication easier.
In Singapore, Trump unilaterally agreed to suspend some joint military drills with South Korea, alarming some in the Pentagon. But administration officials said last week there have been no discussions with North Korea about potentially reducing the 30,000 U.S. military troops stationed in South Korea, despite Trump having questioned the costs of that long-standing security arrangement.
Harry Kazianis, an analyst at the Center for the National Interest, solicited predictions about the summit from 76 national security and foreign policy experts.
More than two-thirds were pessimistic about the Trump administration’s ability to secure significant concessions, he said, while about 20 percent were hopeful and 10 percent squarely optimistic.
Kazianis, who put himself in the optimist camp, said he supports Trump “lighting the traditional playbook on fire” and agreeing to a peace declaration to give Kim more confidence.
“The most important thing we could have is the normalization of dialogue,” he said. “It happens every time we’re in talks with North Korea — something breaks up the talks, it takes a year or two to talk again, and North Korea has more weapons that are more advanced and we lose traction.”
Others cautioned that agreements outside of nuclear disarmament — such as a peace declaration or progress on returning the remains of U.S. troops — will distract from the most pressing goal.
“I see a disturbing trend of talking about nonnuclear issues that will feed into the narrative of the summit already being a success,” said Jung Pak, a former U.S. intelligence official now at the Brookings Institution. “The problem with a peace declaration is that it will divert all the oxygen in the media.”
For Trump, that could be good enough. At campaign rallies last fall, Trump heralded North Korea’s suspension of missile tests as a sign of success. Frank Jannuzi, a former Democratic aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged that Pyongyang’s testing freeze has reduced the sense of crisis in Northeast Asia.
Absent a direct provocation from Kim, Jannuzi said: “Trump has signaled an abundance of patience, perhaps a surplus beyond what any of us would counsel him to say publicly. The process is underway and it will not end as long as Trump is president. Eventually, however, there will be a political question: Can Trump credibly claim any real progress if they are still producing fissile material? My answer would be no.”