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White House privately skeptical of North Korea’s plans to freeze nuclear testing

A TV screen shows file footage of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea on Saturday. North Korea said it plans to freeze nuclear weapons testing.
A TV screen shows file footage of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea on Saturday. North Korea said it plans to freeze nuclear weapons testing. (Ahn Young-Joon/AP)
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Trump White House is reacting skeptically in private to North Korea’s announcement of plans to freeze nuclear weapons testing, warning that dictator Kim Jong Un could be setting a trap and promising not to back off a hard-line stance ahead of a potential leaders’ summit.

President Trump called Pyongyang’s move “progress” and “good news” in a pair of tweets after the news broke Friday evening. Behind the scenes, however, his aides cautioned Saturday that Kim’s statement that the North would halt testing and shutter one nuclear facility was more notable for what he left out: a direct pledge to work toward nuclear disarmament.

Although some foreign policy analysts were heartened that Kim appeared eager to set a positive tone for his summit with Trump, which could come in late May or early June, Trump aides were less enthused. In their view, Kim’s moves aimed to offer relatively modest pledges — which could be quickly reversed — to create the “illusion” that he is “reasonable” and willing to compromise.

President Trump on April 18 said at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida that “our campaign of maximum pressure will continue until North Korea denuclearizes.” (Video: The Washington Post)

That, the Trump aides said, would make it more politically difficult for the United States to reject the North’s demands.

Kim’s announcement early Saturday in Pyongyang surprised White House officials, who had been anticipating a statement to the North Korean people in advance of a summit with Trump but did not know when or how he would deliver it.

North Korea’s state news agency read Kim’s statement on television and issued a written version in English. The young dictator pledged to turn his regime’s attention away from weapons development and toward boosting the economy on an “upward ­spiral.”

White House aides viewed the statement as a signal that Kim’s goal is to get the United States and its allies to ease the punishing economic sanctions that the Trump administration helped enact since the president took office. But they said the administration has learned from the country’s past mistakes, when North Korea violated agreements over its nuclear program after sanctions were lifted.

The aides spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private talks.

Kim is set to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in this week in what is being viewed as a preliminary summit ahead of the face-to-face with Trump. A date and location have not been announced for the latter summit.

South Korea says it will lay groundwork for Trump and Kim to discuss nuclear arms

South Korean officials said that Kim has signaled he is willing to discuss ways to formally end the Korean War, whose hostilities have been suspended since a 1953 armistice, and that he has dropped the North’s long-standing demand that the United States withdraw tens of thousands of troops stationed on the peninsula.

A key test for Trump will be to navigate the competing pressures of the U.S. allies in the region. Moon’s liberal administration is attempting to broker a deal to reduce tensions over fears of war, while conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who views Kim’s recent moves more suspiciously, is pressing Trump to ensure that Japan’s interests are protected in any final agreement.

Abe used his two-day visit to Mar-a-Lago, the president’s winter retreat in Florida, to emphasize that Japan will insist on “complete, verifiable and irreversible” steps toward denuclearization. The Trump administration has taken a similar position, raising the question of whether anything that falls short of such an agreement at a summit would be a failure.

Some Washington-based analysts said Saturday that a more realistic path for Trump would be to tacitly acknowledge that the North, after relentlessly developing its arsenal for three decades, will not take immediate, concrete steps to eliminate the program.

Another option, they suggested, would be to move first to enact constraints on the North’s arsenal, such as capping the program with limits to contain the threat. That would allow the North the security of maintaining some level of nuclear proficiency while enacting curbs on key bomb fuels and delivery systems. At the same time, the two countries would work toward establishing greater trust that could lead to more serious talks over full disarmament down the road.

“The reality is that North Korea has nuclear weapons, and we have to deal with that reality,” said Toby Dalton, the co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In March, Dalton published an essay promoting a cap aimed at preventing the North from achieving “a fully-fledged, combat-ready arsenal.”

“The gap between reality and what we’re planning for is problematic,” Dalton said, “as it creates expectations that can’t be met in the summit process, and we’re back to where we were.”

Trump vows to cancel or walk out of meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un if it’s not ‘fruitful’

Seeking to put caps on the North’s program could be interpreted as the Trump administration accepting North Korea as a nuclear state, a controversial idea inside the U.S. government, where a policy of nuclear nonproliferation has long been taken as an article of faith.

Senior U.S. diplomats for Asia, including Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state, and Mark Lambert, the head of the Korea desk, are advocates of a policy that seeks full denuclearization. But as reports circulated about a potential “bloody nose” military strike on North Korea last year, some U.S. officials argued for containment as a short- or medium-term strategy aimed at preventing military action.

The idea of openly acknowledging North Korea as a nuclear power, however, remains an outlier position, especially given the assumption that it could trigger a nuclear arms race, prompting Japan and South Korea to pursue their own weapons.

Jon Wolfsthal, who oversaw arms control and nonproliferation policy at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said a major concern over accepting the North as a nuclear power, even for a limited period, is that Pyongyang would “pocket that and walk away. A lot of people are worried that’s exactly what Kim is trying to do with the summit.”

But Michael Auslin, an Asia scholar at the conservative Hoover Institution, said it is increasingly difficult for the United States to deny reality.

“We’re seeing a de facto normalization of North Korea’s relationship with the world, as Kim Jong Un met with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, plans to meet with Moon, and now Abe wants a meeting, and then Trump will meet him,” Auslin said. “The reality is that everyone understands these discussions are about a program that has made North Korea a nuclear power.”

Hudson reported from Washington.