Trump back to square one on North Korea

The Singapore summit has improved relations between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but Mr Kim's demands in his New Year speech were an indicator of how far away they still are from achieving denuclearisation.
The Singapore summit has improved relations between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but Mr Kim's demands in his New Year speech were an indicator of how far away they still are from achieving denuclearisation.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Stalemate continues after Kim reiterates call for sanctions to be lifted in his New Year speech

WASHINGTON • Nearly two years into his presidency and more than six months after his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump finds himself essentially back where he was at the beginning in achieving the ambitious goal of getting Mr Kim to relinquish his nuclear arsenal.

That was the essential message of Mr Kim's annual New Year's televised speech, where he reiterated that international sanctions must be lifted before North Korea will give up a single weapon, dismantle a single missile site or stop producing nuclear material.

The list of recent North Korean demands was a clear indicator of how the summit in Singapore in June altered the optics of the relationship more than the reality.

"It's fair to say that not much has changed, although we now have more clarity regarding North Korea's bottom line," Mr Evans Revere, a veteran US diplomat and former president of the Korea Society, wrote in an e-mail.

"Pyongyang refused to accept the United States' definition of 'denuclearisation' in Singapore," he wrote.

To the US, that means the North gives up its entire nuclear arsenal; in the North's view, it includes a reciprocal pullback of any US ability to threaten it with nuclear weapons.

MORE CLARITY

It's fair to say that not much has changed, although we now have more clarity regarding North Korea's bottom line. Pyongyang refused to accept the United States' definition of 'denuclearisation' in Singapore.

MR EVANS REVERE, a veteran US diplomat and former president of the Korea Society, writing in an e-mail.

"The two competing visions of denuclearisation have not changed since then," wrote Mr Revere.

Mr Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who is supposed to turn Mr Trump's enthusiasms into diplomatic achievements, dispute such conclusions.

They note that the tone of one of the world's fiercest armed standoffs has improved. It has, and both leaders say they want to meet again.

In a tweet on Tuesday night, Mr Trump cited Mr Kim's offer not to produce or proliferate weapons, without mentioning the many caveats. He went on to say that he looked forward "to meeting with Chairman Kim who realises so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!"

 
 
 

Mr Kim's message, delivered in the style of a fireside chat from what appeared to be his library, had none of the old-style threats of turning Seoul into a "sea of fire" or striking the United States with a "nuclear sword of justice".

Mr Trump, for his part, has never returned to his 2017 warning that any hostile moves by the North would be "met by a fire and fury like the world has never seen".

By some measures, there has been modest progress.

It has been 13 months since the North tested a nuclear weapon or a long-range missile, a change that Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo cite as the first fruits of what some officials now concede will be a long diplomatic push.

Relations between the two Koreas are warming, though there is considerable evidence that Mr Kim sees his outreach to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea as a way to split the United States from its long-time ally.

But Mr Trump's strategic goal, from the moment he vowed to "solve" the North Korea problem rather than repeat the mistakes of past presidents, has been to end the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, not suspend it in place.

The decision Mr Trump must make now is whether to backtrack on the objective of zero North Korean nuclear weapons, even if that means accepting the North as a nuclear-armed state, as the United States has done with Pakistan, India and Israel.

To hardliners like Mr Trump's National Security Adviser, Mr John Bolton, who excoriated past administrations for making concessions before disarmament, capitulating to Mr Kim on this issue is anathema.

But to those who have viewed Mr Trump's "maximum pressure" as a strategy bound to fail, Mr Kim's offer of a step-by-step approach is the only pathway to success - though maybe a success that constrains, rather than eliminates, the North's nuclear ambitions.

Some advisers around Mr Trump, including some who have left in the past year, believe that the number of weapons means little to the President; he wants to be seen as the man who ended the Korean War.

That is why, one former adviser said recently, Mr Trump kept repeating the suggestion that he might win a Nobel Peace Prize.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2019, with the headline 'Trump back to square one on North Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe