Trump And Kim Eager To Declare Success In Singapore 'No Matter What Happens'

Jun 11, 2018
Originally published on June 11, 2018 9:54 am

Veteran diplomats say it could take years to assess the results of this week's nuclear summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump doesn't expect to wait that long.

"I think within the first minute, I'll know," whether Kim is serious about giving up his nuclear weapons, the president told reporters Saturday. "Just my touch. My feel. That's what I do."

The same impulsive confidence led Trump to accept Kim's invitation to the summit without consulting his advisers back in March. The president abruptly called off the meeting in May, only to revive it eight days later.

The two leaders are finally set to meet Tuesday morning (Monday night in the U.S.) at a luxury island resort in Singapore, the climax of a diplomatic roller-coaster rivaling any at the nearby Universal Studios theme park.

"Be prepared for surprises," said Victor Cha, a Korea expert who worked in the George W. Bush administration. "These two leaders certainly have a flair for the drama and the dramatic in these sorts of meetings."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who's met twice with Kim in preparation for the summit, said he and other advisers have been briefing Trump on a near-daily basis. But the president, who sees himself as a born deal-maker, downplayed the value of such last-minute cramming.

"It's going to be something that will always be spur of the moment," Trump told reporters, as he left a G-7 meeting in Canada en route to Singapore. "It's unknown territory in the truest sense. But I really feel confident. I feel that Kim Jong Un wants to do something great for his people and he has that opportunity."

Analysts say Kim will check off one of his goals simply by sharing the summit stage with Trump. The first such meeting with a sitting U.S. president will help rebrand the North Korean leader from pariah to peacemaker.

"Just the fact of a superficially successful summit is a big gain for him," said Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "He has sat across the table from the president of the United States, the superpower. That elevates his position, prestige, and power tremendously."

Cracks in the sanctions campaign

Cracks have also begun to appear in the "maximum pressure" campaign of economic sanctions against North Korea, even though Trump insists the U.S. won't loosen the screws until Pyongyang's nuclear program is dismantled.

"As long as the summitry is going on, and Kim Jong Un is going to be invited to the United Nations and so forth, it will be very hard to get China, Russia, even South Korea back on board," said Michael Green, who oversaw Asia policy on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. "The leverage will be dissipated."

Brookings scholar Jung Pak agrees.

"Whether we like it or not, the other countries see this as the U.S. turning the spigot back on," Pak said.

The U.S. goal for the summit is straightforward: the complete, verifiable, irreversible end of North Korea's outlawed nuclear weapons program.

"A perfect track record of cheating"

But while Kim has made some gestures in that direction — suspending nuclear and missile tests and making a show of disabling a nuclear test facility — veteran diplomats are skeptical that North Korea will surrender its nuclear weapons altogether.

"I do not know of a single U.S. official — and we talked to a lot of them — or Japanese official below the level of the president who thinks North Korea is going to denuclearize," Green said.

In the 1990s and again the early 2000s, North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear program only to continue with clandestine research. With each round of diplomacy, Pyongyang's weapons grew more advanced and more dangerous.

"We've had multiple deals with North Korea," Green said. "We now know they have a pretty good track record in these negotiations: a perfect track record of cheating every time."

Pompeo said he's received personal assurances from Kim that North Korea is ready to denuclearize.

"President Trump is hopeful, but he's also going into the summit with his eyes wide open," Pompeo told reporters. "We've seen how many inadequate agreements have been struck in the past. And you can be sure that President Trump will not stand for a bad deal."

Timing and verification

Timing and verification will be crucial to the success of any nuclear deal. But those details aren't likely to be worked out during this week's summit and will instead have to wait for follow-up conversations.

The administration has backed away from its demand for immediate disarmament, acknowledging that a weapons program a large as North Korea's would take time to wind down.

But officials still wants to see rapid movement.

"This has to be big and bold," Pompeo said. "We can't step through this over years."

In exchange for North Korea's cooperation, the administration is offering Kim both security guarantees and economic aid.

"He'll be safe. He'll be happy. His country will be rich," Trump said last month.

Analysts suggest the president may be underestimating the value that Kim's family has placed on nuclear weapons for three generations, substituting his own businessman's priorities for the North Korean leader's.

"If the North Koreans wanted to be rich, they could have been rich a long time ago," Cha said.

"For Kim, the nuclear weapons are part of his national identity," Pak added. "To assume that one can go in and talk about making him rich is almost antithetical, almost offensive in a way, for somebody who has achieved and completed his grandfather's goal."

An end to the Korean War?

The summit could also produce some sort of declaration — short of a formal treaty — about ending the Korean War, 65 years after the armistice. Eventually, that could lead to pressure from North Korea and China to withdraw many of the 28,000 American troops in South Korea.

Trump, who has complained about the cost of those troops, might welcome the opportunity, though a troop withdrawal would also reinforce doubts about America's commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.

The president has also promised Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, that he will press Kim for the return of Japanese citizens who have been kidnapped and held captive in North Korea. And Trump has said he may raise the issue of North Korea's dismal human rights record with Kim, although he didn't do so during a White House meeting with one of Kim's top deputies.

Whatever complications may arise after the summit, both sides seem eager to stage a smiling photo of the historic handshake.

"No matter what happens, President Trump and Kim Jong Un are going to call it a success," said former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry, who's now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Both leaders are invested in this and they want to. So the optics are going to look good."

Even those who are skeptical of North Korea's intentions don't want a return to last year's open hostility, when Trump and Kim were calling each other names and boasting about their nuclear buttons.

Despite Trump's confidence in his deal-making instincts, though, the ultimate outcome of the summit probably won't be known quickly.

"President Trump would like to see this as a very different, bigger deal," Cha said. "Everybody else screwed it up. Now he's going to fix it."

But the veteran diplomat, who was briefly considered for a post as Trump's ambassador to South Korea, warns the administration will face the same challenges and trade-offs in North Korea that its predecessors did.

"We want to solve this problem. But we may be stuck managing it."

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So the story from the White House is President Trump does not want to look weak. In particular, he does not want to look weak as a summit with North Korea's leader looms. And adviser Larry Kudlow said over the weekend that that is why Trump lashed out at Canada's prime minister. He left a trail of angry tweets as he headed for the other side of the globe, not wanting Canada to push him around on trade. Now the president is in a hotel in Singapore less than half a mile from the hotel of North Korea's Kim Jong Un. We have a team of NPR reporters covering the summit, including Scott Horsley, who covers the White House.

Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so glad you're in Singapore. Let me just ask you, do his advisers think that the president is focused and prepared and backed by allies in the way that they want as this summit looms?

HORSLEY: You know, I'm not sure there was anything so calculated about the president's lashing out at Justin Trudeau as he traveled from Canada here to Singapore. His tweets about the Canadian prime minister looked very much like the impulsive reaction of a president who was watching a news conference on television that he didn't like. He had - you know, his advisers had told reporters just hours earlier that the U.S. was going to sign on to the G-7 communique, and then President Trump abruptly reversed course as he was traveling here to Canada - from Canada here to Singapore. Whether that sort of impulsive change of direction is what you want as you try to convince North Korea that you are a reliable deal-making partner is an open question.

INSKEEP: OK. So it could be that this was sort of retroactive explanation for why the president was angry. But you raise an interesting point. The United States wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. What the United States wants to offer in return, in broad terms, is security guarantees for North Korea. Is it clear in the minds of U.S. officials, at least, what kind of offer they can put on the table that is detailed that would show how to do that?

HORSLEY: Well, you know, Kim Jong Un is already getting a lot of what he wants out of this summit. He will be sharing the summit stage with the U.S. president, the first North Korean leader to meet with a sitting U.S. president. That, all by itself, gives Kim legitimacy, a show of power. And also, even though the Trump administration insists that the policy of maximum pressure and tough economic sanctions will remain in place against North Korea, we're already seeing cracks in that sanctions regime. And it's going to be very difficult to insist that China, Russia, other countries continue to tighten the screws on North Korea at a time when the president is sitting down, meeting with Kim Jong Un and referring to that North Korean leader as very honorable.

So North Korea is already getting a lot of what Kim wants. On top of that, the U.S. has said they're prepared to offer him security guarantees for his country and his regime, as well as economic aid, although the president says that economic aid would likely come from North Korea's Asian neighbors, not directly from the United States.

INSKEEP: OK, so that is the circumstance as we get ready for the summit on Tuesday - Monday night of the United States, Tuesday morning in Singapore where you are. What's the scene? And where will they be meeting?

HORSLEY: They're meeting at a resort hotel on Sentosa Island here in Singapore. The two leaders are staying in separate hotels, and the resort hotel is sort of a third, neutral space. The president tweeted today that there's a lot of excitement in the air. I can tell you there's certainly a lot of humidity in the air and also some last-minute diplomacy. You know, this summit has come together relatively quickly. It was less than three weeks ago that Trump had withdrawn from it. And since then, we've heard - we've seen a flurry of activity of diplomats trying to flesh out what these two leaders will be talking about tomorrow or late today, U.S. time. And those talks continued right up until this morning.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks, as always.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And safe travels. NPR's Scott Horsley in Singapore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.