As the countdown ticks away toward the Feb. 27-28 summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, concerns are rising over the possibility that the two end up in a compromise that lacks measures to completely denuclearize the North.
The biggest factor in the talks to be held in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, of course, will be how sincere Kim will be on his commitment to give up nuclear weapons and long-range missiles -- commitments he made in his previous talks with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
As things stand, Kim has not been sincere, and the denuclearization work between the US and North Korea has made little progress since Trump and Kim held their historic meeting in Singapore last June. Their second meeting in Hanoi therefore should find a breakthrough to the deadlock.
Then Trump may need to take a different attitude and strategy to get Kim to abide by his denuclearization promise. The latest developments point to the contrary.
Trump is well known for his impulsive, emotional comments, which disclose what is in his mind. One latest case in point was that he said he has “no pressing time schedule.”
“As long as there’s no testing, I’m in no rush,” he said after a telephone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Last week, Trump said he was “in no rush for speed” and, “We just don’t want testing.”
Those comments indicate that the US leader would not push for the early denuclearization of the North as long as the North continues to refrain from testing nuclear bombs or long-range missiles. In other words, the US side may have been setting its bar lower on removing threats from the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
Another worrying sign came from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. For the first time since he became Trump’s point man on the North Korean nuclear issue, Pompeo said last week the US intends to “reap desirable results in exchange for eased sanctions.”
That clearly signals a shift in the US position whereby Trump and his security aides like Pompeo had repeated the need to maintain “maximum pressure” on the North Korean regime until it complies with final, fully verified denuclearization.
There are more signs of Washington trying to appease the North. CNN reported that the Trump administration was discussing with the North exchanging liaison officers with the aim of opening an office in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
Some experts tie the Trump administration’s reconciliatory moves to the president’s wish to reach an agreement with Kim in the Hanoi meeting to boost his political standing, which has suffered in the wake of the investigation into his Russian connections and his declaration of a national emergency to fund a border wall.
The worst-case scenario could be that Trump, now setting his sights on re-election, makes concessions to reach a half-baked deal with Kim and brag about it as a major foreign policy achievement, which is precisely what he did after the Singapore summit.
Another cause for concern is that the South Korean government, another key player in the denuclearization issue, has been even more active in appeasing the North.
President Moon Jae-in and ruling party leader Lee Hae-chan are already speaking publicly about the need to resume some inter-Korean projects that could be in breach of international sanctions, including South Korean tour programs to North Korea’s Kumgangsan. In his latest telephone talk with Trump, Moon reiterated the willingness to promote inter-Korean projects like the connection of railways and roads at South Korea’s own expense.
Basically, it is desirable for Trump and Moon to endeavor to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem diplomatically, and offering some sweet incentives like improved relations, security guarantees and economic assistance could facilitate the denuclearization process.
But the bottom line in dealing with the North is that it should first take substantial action, such as declaring all materials and facilities related to its nuclear and missile programs, including those for uranium-based ones, and allowing outside inspections.
Just keep in mind how North Korea has enhanced its nuclear and missile technologies over the past several decades despite numerous negotiations and agreements. All of them turned out to be small, bad deals.