News analysis

North Korea scores with US visit, while Trump manages expectations

US President Donald Trump is presented with a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on June 1, 2018. PHOTO: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE/SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD

When US President Donald Trump received General Kim Yong Chol, the right-hand man to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the White House on Friday, it was seen as the biggest breakthrough in almost 20 years of dialogue between the two sides.

Whether a more substantive breakthrough occurs in Singapore on June 12 when the two leaders meet remains to be seen - and Mr Trump is clearly taking care to manage expectations.

"We're not going to go in and sign something on June 12, and we never were," he said. "We're going to start a process."

The highly savvy, multilingual 72-year-old general's trip to Washington was in itself extraordinary. He is under US sanctions and required a waiver to be allowed into the country.

But such is the current thaw in US-North Korean ties that Mr Trump even walked him back to his car, after posing for pictures for the media.

The North Koreans will make full use of that gesture for domestic propaganda, said Ms Johna Ohtagaki, a senior director at consultancy BowerGroupAsia and formerly an adviser to two US secretaries of state, Mr John Kerry and Mrs Hillary Clinton.

"In Trump's mind, he may feel he is not bound by the customs of the past. The North Koreans will see the gesture as positive - but may also see it as weakness," Ms Ohtagaki told The Sunday Times.

Another expert agreed the outcome favoured Pyongyang.

"Today was a total victory for North Korea, without having made any meaningful concessions whatsoever," Dr Lee Sung Yoon, professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told The Sunday Times.

"That Trump received Kim Yong Chol in the White House instead of saying, 'I'm too busy. I hear you've had good conversations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Maybe I will see you in Singapore', indicated Trump was overly keen on effecting that Singapore moment."

Dr Lee cited other "unnecessary concessions" by Mr Trump, and these included saying that North Korea could in effect take its time on nuclear dismantlement, that he trusted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and that South Korea, China and Japan would help in terms of investment in the North.

The promise of more talks also "normalised" Mr Kim as a legitimate, reform-minded leader, Dr Lee contended.

On efforts to eliminate the North's nuclear weapons programme, Mr Trump told journalists after seeing off the general that he had "never said it happens in one meeting". But he added that it would "ultimately be a successful process".

Mr Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who has worked on North Korea policy, said of the comments: "This is perfect management of expectations. Much more realistic. Very reassuring."

Outcomes of the Singapore summit may depend on whether President Trump is open to settling for a package of measures from North Korea that is less than the ideal of a total, complete and relatively quick denuclearisation, Mr Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defence Priorities, wrote in an article for CNBC.

Mr Kim will have to be flexible too; recognising that "a suspension of US sanctions and a statement of intent in support of a comprehensive peace treaty will likely be the best his regime can get if he is intent on maintaining a small nuclear arsenal", said Mr DePetris.

Ms Lindsey Ford, director of Political-Security Affairs for the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former Defence Department official, said resolving the significant trust deficit between the two sides would remain difficult.

"The United States wants to convince North Korea that it would be more secure if it gives up nuclear weapons, and North Korea wants to convince the United States to make it secure enough that it doesn't need nuclear weapons. Those two positions are fundamentally at odds," she told The Sunday Times.

On a lighter note, Mr Kim may allow a "Western hamburger franchise" into the country as a show of goodwill to the US, according to an intelligence report described by US officials to NBC.

South Korean adviser Chung In Moon had suggested in late April that North Korea might be interested in welcoming a McDonald's as tensions ease, The Washington Post reported.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline North Korea scores with US visit, while Trump manages expectations. Subscribe