The US president says North Korea has promised not to launch missiles ‘in the meantime’
WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump will need to adopt an unfamiliar set of traits — patience, persistence, clear goals and conditions — and be prepared to walk away when he meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, people who have negotiated with Kim’s regime say.
Trump’s apparently impromptu decision to begin setting up talks contrasts with Kim’s situation — North Korea has prepared deliberately for decades for a meeting with the sitting US president as a major step toward gaining international legitimacy.
Leaving the White House on Saturday for a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump told reporters that: “We’re doing something very special. We have a lot of support. I think North Korea is going to go very well.”
He also said North Korea had promised not to launch missiles “in the meantime”.
Earlier, Trump tweeted that he’d spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about the meeting with Kim. “President Xi told me he appreciates that the US is working to solve the problem diplomatically rather than going with the ominous alternative. China continues to be helpful!” Trump said. Abe was “very enthusiastic”.
South Korea, which helped facilitate the talks, asked for an exemption to Trump’s planned steel tariffs, the Finance Ministry said in a statement yesterday.
Negotiations with the North Korean regime are “very painstaking and, frankly, painful”, said Christopher Hill, who served as US ambassador to South Korea and assistant secretary of state under President George W Bush. “You think you have an agreement one minute and then you don’t the next minute.”
The White House said last Thursday that Trump plans to meet with Kim within months, dispensing with decades of American foreign policy by accepting a high-stakes invitation from the North Korean leader.
The summit, which the Trump administration hopes will lead to talks to wind down Kim’s nuclear weapons programme, could avert what has at times seemed to be an imminent war on the Korean Peninsula. But the meeting may also be a ploy by Kim to buy time to perfect his weapons and wriggle out of punishing economic sanctions.
Heading toward the talks, the biggest mystery is Kim himself, who is not known to have met with another head of state since taking charge in 2011. The South Korean government’s analysis of the dictator may help, Hill said. “Beyond that, we only have Dennis Rodman to go on.”
It might not hurt Trump to have a chat with Rodman, his one-time “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant, who has probably met the North Korean dictator more than any other American.
The White House demonstrated its own capacity to complicate the situation last Friday. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the meeting wouldn’t happen “until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea”, appearing to attach unspecified preconditions to the summit that didn’t exist a day earlier.
No new conditions have been set, said a White House official, who asked to not be named due to lack of authorisation to speak publicly on the matter. The administration only expects Kim to continue to refrain from weapons tests and to stick to what a South Korean official said was a commitment to denuclearisation, the official said.
In a Twitter post last Friday night, Trump wrote that “the deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the world. Time and place to be determined”.
‘Flashy and Spectacular’
Should it materialise, “Trump’s meeting with Kim will be flashy and spectacular and will be Trump’s footnote in history, his Nixon in China moment”, said Gary Samore, who negotiated with North Korea during the Clinton administration and served as President Barack Obama’s arms-control coordinator. “But whether it leads to a real agreement I think is very unclear at this point.”
A senior State Department official said the administration’s expectation is that the talks will determine whether the two sides are ready for broader negotiations on the North’s nuclear programme and security issues.
“They’ve always said they’ll give up their nuclear programme if the threat from the US is removed, so their position hasn’t changed in three decades,” Samore said. “The catch, of course, is what it would take to remove the threat is very elastic and very extensive.”
Hill said that Trump would be well served to reject the idea of a “free-form” discussion and instead enter the talks with a structure and a clear understanding of variables such as when denuclearisation would happen. “Otherwise, he will possibly come out of the meeting not knowing what’s been agreed to.”
Samore said the North Koreans “will be incredibly gracious and friendly. They have no interest in embarrassing Trump. They’ll be extremely polite, respectful, friendly because for them the payoff is the photo-op of Kim shaking hands with the president of the US and giving Kim status and stature.”
But substantial negotiations will likely prove frustrating. When he negotiated with Kim’s father’s regime, Samore said, North Korea demanded tangible goods — rice or baby formula, for example — without offering much in the way of concessions. “Whatever we wanted, they would say, ‘a million tonnes of rice’.”
“Clinton, Bush and Obama all discovered that this is not an easy problem to solve and so, I’m afraid Trump is going into this with wildly erratic expectations,” he said.
Decades of Mistrust
The two sides will need to overcome decades of mistrust, according to Yang Xiyu, who dealt with North Koreans as former director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Office on Korean Peninsula Issues. The interventions in Iraq and Libya have made it hard for North Korea to trust any US pledges to avoid force, he said.
“The Americans think the North Koreans have no credibility, and have repeatedly failed to match their words with actions,” Yang said. “The North Koreans also have zero faith in the Americans, and Kim worries that the US will topple the regime if North Korea has no nuclear weapons.”
The Trump administration said it’s prepared for protracted talks. Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has “a generally cautious negotiating style but he is very persistent in trying to reach resolution”.
Meanwhile, the administration won’t relent on what Trump has described as a “maximum pressure” sanctions regime. “You’ll continue to see sanctions as a primary tool of foreign policy and be continued to be deployed in evermore targeted, specific and impactful ways,” said Andrea Gacki, deputy director at Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
If all else fails, Rodman, 56, stands ready. The former National Basketball Association star has made multiple trips to North Korea to meet with Kim and is “behind the president 100%”, said Chris “Vo” Volo, a spokesman. “We would both love to go back to North Korea and help in any way possible.” — Bloomberg