US President Donald 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 towards gaining international legitimacy. Leaving the White House 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 on Sunday.
The White House said 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 program, 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 towards 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, Christopher Hill, who served as US ambassador to South Korea and assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, 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. 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 authorization 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 denuclearization, the official said.
In a Twitter post, 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 materialize, “Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un 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 program and security issues.
“They’ve always said they’ll give up their nuclear program if the threat from the United States 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 denuclearization 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 Jong Un shaking hands with the president of the United States and giving Kim Jong Un 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.