Within minutes of North Korea’s announcement that it was suspending nuclear and missile tests and closing a test site, President Trump proclaimed a victory of sorts.
“Big progress!” he tweeted, eager to bask in the glow of credit for having influenced a significant reversal by a traditionally intractable foe. “Look forward to our Summit,” a potentially historic first-time meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.
But Kim Jong Un was also basking in what he sees as his new and fortified position of strength.
Kim’s announcement merely reiterated promises he had made last month: a moratorium on nuclear tests in the run-up to a summit this week with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and then the Trump encounter planned to take place by mid-June.
Kim can afford to suspend tests because, he proclaimed earlier this year, his nuclear arsenal is complete — and capable, he claims, of attacking the United States. He has not offered to give up any bombs or dismantle any production infrastructure.
According to the South Koreans, Kim has also offered to drop his usual demands that U.S. troops leave the Korean peninsula and that Seoul and Washington end joint military exercises.
The eagerness with which many in Trump’s inner circle seem willing to embrace Kim’s apparent overtures would bolster a notion percolating in the administration — not acknowledged publicly — that a nuclear-armed North Korea is already a fait accompli. The more realistic goal now is to freeze, reduce or contain North Korea’s bellicose capabilities, but not eliminate them.
Tacitly, North Korea would be unofficially recognized as a nuclear power, fulfilling Kim’s dream, albeit short of becoming a full-fledged member of the so-called nuclear club under terms of the 1970 international nonproliferation treaty.
Officially, the U.S. goal remains a “complete, irreversible and verifiable” ending of North Korea’s nuclear program, as unlikely as many experts here and in Asia believe that to be.
A senior U.S. administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said North Korea would not receive any economic assistance unless it takes steps to remove or destroy the weapons.
“We are not to give them a nickel until they substantively dismantle their nukes,” the official said.
Japan has also been assured that Trump will not strike a deal that allows Kim to keep short- and medium-range missiles, which threaten Japan. “The president was very strong and reassuring on that front,” the official said.
Veteran U.S. diplomats warn that any apparent concessions that Kim offers in the run-up to the summits do not mean the wily leader has changed his spots.
Kim “studied at the feet of the master,” another administration official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity, alluding to the dynastic nature of the North Korean leadership. Kim learned from his ruthless father, who learned from his father, the revered founder of the nation.
Kim has long invested his legitimacy in his nuclear program. But, the diplomats said, he may now believe that, by building the arsenal and killing or otherwise eliminating potential challengers, he has consolidated his power to the degree that he can change the narrative and reshape his image and that of his struggling country.
Also of concern, the United States and North Korea speak with different vocabularies. “Denuclearization” does not necessarily mean the same thing to both countries, a nuance that the inexperienced Trump entourage may not grasp.
Trump last week expressed optimism about the summit — its exact date and location yet to be determined — after the secret visit in early April of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to North Korea to discuss details with Kim. Pompeo is now Trump’s nominee for secretary of State.
“I think we’re going to be successful,” Trump said, while also promising to walk out of the talks if he did not sense progress. “But for any reason if I think we’re not [successful], we end,” he said.
Some experts fear the opposite could take place. Trump, with his gift of braggadocio, might declare a great accomplishment when nothing of substance had in fact been agreed upon.
Trump loyalists at the State Department and within the White House have credited his “campaign of maximum pressure,” a combination of crippling economic sanctions, aggressive rhetoric and occasional words of outreach, with changing Kim’s behavior.
“The president has made clear that continuation of the pressure campaign is the tool that enables the opportunity to achieve a successful diplomatic outcome in North Korea,” Pompeo testified at his hearing to become secretary of State before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month.
“President Trump isn’t one to play games at the negotiating table and I won’t be either,” he added.
Indeed, Kim may have met his match in hyperbolic threats when “Little Rocket Man” — Trump’s onetime derogatory nickname for Kim — took on “the Deranged Dotard,” as Kim responded in describing Trump.
And the sanctions, which the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, says have choked off nearly 90% of North Korea’s legal export revenue, have clearly hurt an already impoverished nation. Sanctions packages have been imposed unanimously by the U.N. Security Council and also unilaterally by the Trump administration, essentially a continuation and ratcheting up of President Obama’s policies.
“Our sanctions are working,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a Trump supporter, said Saturday. “The message is becoming clear to Kim Jong Un that he’s been isolated by sanctions and no one in the modern world wants North Korea to have nuclear capabilities.”
But other factors are also at play. Moon, a recently elected progressive with a more reconciliatory attitude toward Pyongyang, has instigated and championed most of the rapprochement that may now be coming to fruition.
China’s role has been key. As North Korea’s principal ally, President Xi Jinping is uniquely positioned to demand actions from Kim. Kim made his only known travel outside North Korea since becoming leader to meet with Xi in Beijing in March.
Xi had been angry with Kim for upstaging several major events in China with showy launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles. At the same time, Xi, fearful of regional instability, is reluctant to make conditions so difficult for Kim that he might lose control of his population.
In their March meeting, however, where Xi treated Kim like a visiting high-level dignitary, it is possible that the Chinese leader persuaded Kim to cooperate with his longtime rivals in exchange for economic relief and steadfast Chinese support and protection.
Victor Cha, a Washington-based academic and expert on Korean issues, warned that “inflated expectations” could well doom the Trump-Kim summit. Cha, whom the administration considered for the ambassadorship in Seoul until he criticized U.S. contingency plans for a preemptive military strike on North Korea, urged caution regarding what Kim may be offering, and what he actually does.
“Lots of pre-summit talk about what [North Korea is] willing to do,” Cha said via Twitter, “but little on what [the United States and South Korea are] willing to give (which is, of course, the hard part).”
The administration has insisted it need not make concessions ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. But the more that Kim appears to be ceding, the more the pressure will be on the United States to offer something.
For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter
Times staff writers Cathleen Decker and Noah Bierman in Washington contributed to this report.