President Donald Trump on Monday promised that his unprecedented face-to-face meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un will be “very interesting,” appearing at ease as the critical hour for nuclear negotiations that could help define his early presidency drew near.
"Meetings between staffs and representatives are going well and quickly," Trump tweeted Monday, adding: "…but in the end, that doesn’t matter. We will all know soon whether or not a real deal, unlike those of the past, can happen!"
The normally reclusive Kim, meanwhile, toured the streets of Singapore, the summit’s modern host city. The North Korean leader, for years seen only in photos staged by his government’s official media, even posed for a selfie with the Southeast Asian city-state’s foreign minister.
Trump and Kim will meet at 9 p.m. Monday Eastern Time, accompanied only by translators, for what could be the most dramatic moment of Trump’s presidential tenure to date. At issue is a North Korean nuclear program that has advanced at least to the brink of being able to strike the continental U.S., a threat Trump says he will not tolerate. Politically, the summit is a chance for Trump to play the role of statesman and dealmaker, defying critics who call him a threat to global stability and at least temporarily quiet Washington’s fixation on his ties to Russia.
It remains unclear if the meeting will produce any tangible promises – including a possible exchange of security guarantees by the U.S. in return for a pledge by Kim to surrender his nuclear arsenal. Trump has suggested a potential deal in which the U.S. normalizes relations with Kim’s pariah regime if it disarms. Skeptics worry the summit could produce nothing more than a photo-op that does little to delay a potential military conflict.
Trump boasted last week that he’ll know “within the first minute” whether Kim is serious about obeying U.S. demands to end his nuclear program. The Republican president, who arrived for the summit fresh off a bitter weekend clash with U.S. allies at the G-7, has also dismissed the need to prepare, saying that “attitude” is what matters more.
Many observers expect Trump to declare victory regardless of what deal he can strike with Kim. But some worry Trump’s lack of preparation and his desire for a win on the global stage will lead him to prematurely offer concessions, and that the North Korean leader will capitalize on the prestige that comes with being in the same room as the U.S. president.
“No matter what happens today, it’s a win for Kim Jong Un,” said Michael Auslin, a fellow at the Hoover Institution. “Compared to that, there are huge risks for Donald Trump.”
Trump, who turns 72 on Thursday, has tried to strike a confident tone so far. "Great to be in Singapore, excitement in the air!" he tweeted after landing. On Monday, he had lunch with Singapore’s prime minister, where he was given an early birthday cake. Kim, who has rarely ventured out of North Korea, has also appeared at ease. He was flanked by diplomats, security guards and journalists as he walked around the city Monday night local time.
The White House said Monday that pre-summit “discussions between the United States and North Korea are ongoing and have moved more quickly than expected.” But it also said Trump will leave Singapore late Tuesday, after talking to reporters – ruling out the possibility the talks could be extended.
The Trump-Kim meeting, to be held at Singapore’s posh Capella Hotel, is the first-ever session between a sitting U.S. president and a leader of North Korea. The two heads of state will meet one-on-one (with translators), before being joined by top aides and later sharing a group working lunch.
The White House said the expanded bilateral session would include Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser John Bolton. Joining for the working lunch will be White House press secretary Sarah Sanders; Sung Kim, a U.S. ambassador with extensive North Korea experience; and Matt Pottinger, a top Asia hand on the National Security Council.
Bolton’s presence is noteworthy because he has angered North Korea by saying the U.S. should apply the “Libya model” to its negotiations with Pyongyang. Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi agreed in 2003-2004 to get rid of his early-stage nuclear program in return for Western economic links, but he was killed nearly a decade later by rebels backed by the U.S. and its NATO allies.
Just months ago, a meeting between Trump and Kim would have seemed impossible. Trump in 2017 had ramped up sanctions and threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the isolated Asian country, derisively calling Kim “Little Rocket Man.” Kim, who is in his 30s, kept up his nuclear tests while belittling Trump as a “dotard.”
Even though the two leaders are testing diplomacy, a huge substantive gulf appears to remain between them.
Trump aides use the phrase “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” to describe their aim. North Korea says it is committed to “denuclearization” of the peninsula as well. The key difference is that Pyongyang has traditionally defined “denuclearization” to include security guarantees from Washington that can include the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea and a pledge not to extend America’s nuclear umbrella over allies in the region.
Even if the two sides reach a common definition of denuclearization, how to achieve that goal – whether it involves tit-for-tat concessions, who will go first, and the timeframe – still needs to be worked out.
U.S. intelligence officials have reportedly estimated North Korea has as many as 60 nuclear warheads; they’ve also been reported to surmise that Kim has little interest in giving them up anytime soon, but that he might be willing to allow a Western fast-food chain like McDonalds into his country as a sign of good will.
Traditionally in bilateral negotiations, the leaders of the countries involved would meet or have some sort of a conversation toward the end of a long process, after lower-level aides hash out details in a set of formal talks. Trump and Kim have essentially turned the process upside down.
“We’ve just shattered the old model for how we deal with North Korea, and we’re not going back,” Auslin said.
Aides to Trump say his willingness to meet Kim upfront shows he can think outside the usual diplomatic boxes. They also note that decades of U.S.-North Korea talks at lower levels had yielded little but broken promises and accords that eventually fell apart.
Nonetheless, after first insisting that he wants North Korea to immediately give up its nuclear program before the U.S. does anything, Trump has in recent days tried to lower expectations. He’s cast the upcoming summit as just a first meeting and the start of “a process.” That process is expected to include offers of international economic assistance to North Korea if it relinquishes its nuclear program.
In a preview on Monday in Singapore, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said America also is ready to offer Kim “different” and “unique” security assurances if he ends his nuclear program. Analysts generally agree that Kim’s top priority is ensuring the survival of his regime, which he inherited from his father and grandfather and which rules ruthlessly over a population of 25 million.
Pompeo would not say whether reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea was on the negotiating table. There are around 28,500 U.S. troops presently in South Korea.
"I’m not going to get into any of the details of the discussions that we’ve had to date. I can only say this: We’re prepared to take what will be security assurances that are different, unique, than have been provided – than America has been willing to provide previously," Pompeo said. "We think this is both necessary and appropriate."
Speaking at the Pentagon Monday, Defense Secretary James Mattis would not say whether the U.S. troop presence in South Korea would be part of the negotiations. “You’ll have to ask them,” Mattis said. He added that discussing the subject would be “premature” but not a “red line,” and an issue to be discussed between Washington and Seoul.
Pompeo has dismissed questions about whether Trump is fully prepared to meet with Kim, saying the president is regularly briefed on North Korea. On Monday, the secretary of state waved off another concern: that Trump’s trade-related fights with U.S. allies — including Canada, Germany and Britain — at the G-7 meeting over the weekend would weaken his hand in talks with Kim
“There are always irritants in relationships,” Pompeo said, adding that he is “very confident” that the U.S. will keep its strong ties to longtime allies.
The United States has turned to its allies and other nations across the world over the past year and a half to ramp up sanctions and reduce contacts with North Korea, a “maximum pressure campaign” designed to drag North Korea to the negotiating table.
Experts debate whether the campaign was the tipping point in bringing Kim around to talks. North Korea’s economy is so isolated that sanctions have limited impact. Some believe that Kim offered to negotiate only after his nuclear and missile programs advanced to a state that directly threatens the U.S. Still, Kim in recent months appeared amenable to appeals from South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to try diplomacy.
In recent days, Trump has said he won’t be using the phrase “maximum pressure campaign” as often, even though he has not lifted the sanctions. As the prospect of a meeting loomed with Kim, Trump also has softened his language about the dictator, even casting him as “very honorable.”
South Korea and Japan are two U.S. allies with huge stakes in Trump’s nuclear diplomacy. Each country has urged Trump not only to push Kim to give up his long-range missiles capable of striking the U.S., but also short- and mid-range missiles that can reach their soil.
South Korea, whose capital, Seoul, is a city of 10 million just 35 miles from the border with North Korea, has a great deal to fear from Pyongyang’s conventional weapons. Japan, meanwhile, has consistently urged Trump to demand that North Korea mothball its chemical and biological weapons, too, as well as raise the issue of Japanese who were abducted by North Korea in years past.
Other activists, meanwhile, are hoping that Trump will broach the topic of human rights when he meets with Kim. The North Korean regime keeps tens of thousands of people in gulags and other camps where many are essentially enslaved.
Jacqueline Klimas and Wesley Morgan contributed to this report.
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