The Trump Summit Team

Don’t say Donald Trump isn’t a man of faith—the president has lately expressed a great deal of it when it comes to Kim Jong-un’s readiness for change. Trump is placing all his hopes for his June 12 summit with the North Korean dictator on the possibility Kim really is willing to dump his nascent nuclear program. “I think they want to do that,” Trump said on June 1, shortly after his meeting at the White House with Kim’s number two in Pyongyang, Kim Yong-chol. “I know they want to do that.” He cautioned that unraveling the program would be the “beginning” of a “process” but promised “a very positive result in the end.”

Trump’s point man on the summit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has been similarly optimistic, at least in public. After his first meeting with Kim in North Korea this spring, Pompeo said he believed there was a “real opportunity” for ending the hermit kingdom’s nuclear program. After meeting with Kim Yong-chol a day before Trump’s sit-down, the secretary of state spoke hopefully about the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” the summit presented.

A commitment to denuclearization would be a remarkable turnaround for Kim and his regime. The 34-year-old supreme leader has continued and accelerated the work of his father and grandfather to develop his country’s nuclear weapons capabilities, with North Korea making some major advances in its program in recent years—including a likely successful test of a hydrogen bomb last September. A fully functioning nuclear weapons program would be the culmination of decades of development by three successive regimes in North Korea, an integral part of the Kims’ effort to achieve their sense of national security as well as global respect.

But the economic turmoil North Korea has faced as a result of the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign of tough sanctions (with the necessary cooperation of the Chinese, Pyongyang’s critical economic lifeline) has changed Kim’s calculus, so the president’s thinking goes. Permanent denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is the policy goal of the United States, and the administration’s hope is that Trump’s meeting with Kim in Singapore will begin a process for achieving it.

“The president has told me if he gets the sense that Kim is not there for denuclearization, he will push away from the table,” says Cory Gardner, the Republican senator from Colorado and a top North Korea hawk on Capitol Hill. But there are signs that Trump is looking to come away from Singapore with a deal, any deal.

The effective benching of two top advisers who have been less than enthusiastic about deal-making with Kim is instructive. Vice President Mike Pence, whom one White House aide described as the “skunk at the garden party,” has in discussions with the president focused on North Korea’s abysmal record on human rights—a topic Trump is not expected to broach in Singapore. And the chief North Korea hawk in the administration, national security adviser John Bolton, has not convened any formal meetings about the summit with National Security Council members.

There has been speculation, which the White House denies, that Bolton and Pence were looking to undermine the summit. Both men had in television interviews cited positively the “Libya model”—that is, Muammar Qaddafi’s decision in 2003 to give up his nuclear program voluntarily. But to the North Koreans, that “model” extends to the NATO-backed removal of Qaddafi from power in 2011, which ended with the dictator’s death at the hands of rebels. Bolton’s invocation of the Libya model in April apparently irked Trump, but a White House official says the president was aware Pence planned to use the term in a Fox News interview on May 21.

Still, the vice president’s warning that “this will only end like the Libya model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal” prompted Pyongyang to issue a blistering statement blasting Pence as a “political dummy” and effectively threatening to engage in nuclear war. On the morning of May 24, Trump released an open letter to Kim canceling the summit. The official White House line was that a lack of communication from the North Koreans had gummed up the planning and rendered the June 12 date next to impossible. But just hours after canceling it, Trump began saying the summit could be back on schedule. A week later, Trump and Pompeo were meeting with Kim Yong-chol in the Oval Office—neither Pence nor Bolton was in the room—and the president emerged to confirm the summit was back on.

There are two big questions ahead of the Singapore summit, say Korea watchers. The first is whether the U.S. definition of denuclearization—known in diplomacy jargon as “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” or CVID—is the same as Kim’s. Historically, Pyongyang has viewed revoking the American nuclear security guarantee to our ally South Korea, with whom the North is still at war, as an integral part of “denuclearization,” something past American administrations have been unwilling to consider. Despite assurances from Pompeo that both the United States and North Korea are “in complete agreement” about the specifics of the goal, hawks say Trump needs to stand firm on our definition. “The key objective for Trump is to drill down hard on what Kim wants to denuclearize,” says Gardner.

Victor Cha, a senior adviser on Korea policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was Trump’s expected pick for ambassador to South Korea until his objections to administration policy scuttled his nomination. A skeptic of diplomacy with North Korea, Cha says it’s not just Kim’s idea of denuclearization that may be at odds with U.S. policy. “Is the president’s definition different?” he says. Or, as other skeptics have suggested, could Trump’s threshold for an acceptable level of denuclearization change in the moment in Singapore—something short of CVID that is nonetheless “more” than what any previous American president has achieved? What he says in the room with Kim will define the parameters, as far as the North Koreans are concerned, for the expected follow-on negotiations among lower-level officials.

The second important question, Cha says, concerns what the United States is willing to give North Korea in any deal on denuclearization. Publicly, Pompeo has spoken broadly about economic aid and relief from sanctions. There’s also been discussion of offering North Korea “security guarantees” in exchange for giving up its nuclear ambitions. Gardner says Harry Harris, the former Navy admiral who is Trump’s nominee for ambassador to South Korea, has even brought up the idea of including North Korea in the so-called nuclear umbrella that provides those guarantees to South Korea and Japan. (The State Department declined to comment on that idea.) The lack of clarity from the administration on what the United States is ready to concede worries even Trump allies, who are concerned the president could negotiate away big items in the name of a deal.

Take, for example, the idea of pulling out of South Korea the 28,000 American troops stationed there. Doing so would be perhaps the biggest concession to North Korea and would appear to be an unthinkable abandonment of our ally without a verifiable change in Pyongyang’s behavior. But there’s reason to think Kim may perceive an opening. In recent months, both President Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis have publicly said the idea was on the negotiating table. Mattis has since walked that back, saying last week that U.S. forces in South Korea are “not going anywhere” and that “it’s not even a subject of the discussions.” But Josh Rogin of the Washington Post reported on June 7 that privately, “Trump continues to say he doesn’t agree with the argument that U.S. troops in South Korea are strategically necessary, and he thinks the United States gets nothing back from paying to keep them there.”

The fear from Korea hawks is that Trump’s strong desire for a deal and his ability to be charmed by whomever he meets increase the risk he will fall into the same traps previous administrations have found themselves in: empty guarantees from the North Koreans in exchange for concessions that embolden the Kim regime. “They know Trump wants a success,” Cha says.

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