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World & Nation

Trump’s impromptu approach to North Korea divides his administration

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North Koreans show off models of their missiles in a parade in Pyongyang in 2017, along with a message that says, “For Peace and Stability in the World.”
(Wong Maye-E / Associated Press)

The impromptu nature of President Trump’s forays into foreign policy led to another display of showmanship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but it also exposed divisions within the administration and uncertainty about its goals.

In a tweet early Monday, national security advisor John Bolton reacted with “curiosity” to reports that Trump was ready to settle for a freeze leaving Kim’s nuclear bombs in place.

Bolton insisted that was not his position and called it “a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the president. There should be consequences.”

In fact, Trump may be contemplating just such a thing.

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His steps into North Korea, the first by a sitting U.S. president, and then his friendly 53-minute chat with Kim afterward, were intended to jump-start disarmament talks that had stalled since the collapse of a summit in Hanoi earlier this year.

That apparently worked. Trump announced talks would resume, and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who accompanied the president in the meeting with Kim, said working groups could get together as early as this month.

For all the fanfare, however, it now appears that negotiations with North Korea will revert to a much-tried pattern of the past, something the Trump administration had insisted it would not do: a reciprocal, step-by-step process.

And because Trump needs to have something to show well before next year’s presidential election, he is expected to push for an interim deal that he can hold up as a major diplomatic coup, analysts and diplomats said. That could include an initial freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear program and will require concessions from the United States.

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Trump “seems to want to keep testing to see if the North Koreans will do anything, and then determine what that ‘anything’ looks like,” said Susan Thornton, a former acting assistant secretary of State who specialized in the Koreas and now teaches at Yale University.

Those prospects, after Kim has made virtually no concession or dismantled any of his nuclear arsenal, are already creating friction inside the White House.

Bolton was conspicuous in his absence when Trump and Pompeo choppered up to the demilitarized zone dividing the Koreas. Instead, Bolton was in Mongolia.

Both Bolton and Pompeo are more hawkish on North Korea than Trump, but while the secretary of State has softened his position to slide more in line with the boss, Bolton has not.

The pending process will anger Bolton, and could force Pompeo to publicly backpedal from his past positions.

Likely concessions include relief of some piece of the punishing economic sanctions that the United States and the United Nations have placed on North Korea. Until now, Pompeo has repeatedly insisted no sanction will be removed until there is “a full and verifiable denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula.

Minutes after his session with Kim on Sunday, Trump hinted at sanctions relief.

“Sanctions remain, yes, but at some point during the negotiations, things can happen,” he said. “At some point, look, I’m looking forward to taking them off.”

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Wendy Sherman, a diplomat who coordinated North Korea policy under President Clinton and helped forge the Iran nuclear deal, said the decision to keep Bolton out of the meeting with Kim was a concession to the North Koreans, who blamed his hard line for the collapse of the Hanoi summit.

“Although one wants to be sensitive to the person on the other side of the table,” in this case, “the opposing party is a murderous dictator,” she said. “If the president is truly in charge of his policy, then he should be able to bring to the table whoever he wants.”

A senior administration official said Bolton’s trip to Mongolia, whose importance to U.S. policy the official stressed, was already on his schedule.

“It’s not about Bolton being out of the loop,” the official said. “It’s other people being out on a limb.”

Bolton is instinctively mistrustful of many of the world’s most notorious dictators. Trump at times seems to embrace them. That in part explains why the two are on different tracks when it comes to North Korea. Similarly, Trump’s hints at sanctions relief, and suggestions that an interim, incomplete deal could be struck, are anathema to Bolton.

In January, Stephen Biegun, Trump’s special representative for North Korea, first raised the possibility that the administration would have to take reciprocal steps in its dealings with North Korea. He made the comments in a speech at Stanford University, little noticed at the time. At the same time, Bolton was pressing for a harder stance ahead of the Hanoi summit in February.

It remains to be seen whether Bolton is permanently losing influence and being marginalized, or if this is an isolated dispute.

Regardless, it raises questions about what any forthcoming agreement will look like, and sends mixed signals to the Koreans, who parse every statement uttered from the Oval Office.

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Robert Carlin, a former government official who was involved in negotiations with North Korea in the 1990s, said it’s “extremely important” to send a unified message to North Korea.

“You can’t have people saying things all over the map,” he said. “Biegun and Pompeo have to be able to fend everybody off or bring them into the tent.”

Sue Mi Terry, an expert on North Korea and former CIA analyst, said the Hanoi summit collapsed because Kim would not budge on making but one concession: shuttering the Yongbyon nuclear plant. The North Koreans have been boning up since then, and will likely be prepared to offer something else, probably by next summer.

“It doesn’t have to be big [or] substantive,” she said. “Then Trump can say he did what no one else did: He got a deal.”

“It will not necessarily be a good deal for the country; that’s a separate conversation,” she added. “As long as he has enough to spin it.”

And while Trump may be looking for an election-year score, some experts caution that North Korea will use such short-term vision to its advantage.

“I do not mean this to be disrespectful, but I do think it is accurate to describe the ‘political philosophy’ of this administration as one of ‘reality TV,’” said David Maxwell, a veteran special forces officer and now fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative Washington advocacy group.

But “in the end, to counter Kim’s political warfare strategy and long con, we have to outplay him with our long game.”


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