President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear to be on a collision course over what comes first: Disarmament or sanctions relief.
On Sunday, two of Trump’s top national security officials — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton — both said the US needs proof that North Korea’s denuclearisation is complete, verifiable, and irreversible before sanctions are lifted. By contrast, Kim has called for a step-by-step process to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.
Bridging that gap is crucial for a successful outcome when Trump and Kim meet in Singapore on June 12. Trump has insisted he won’t repeat the mistakes of the past, when agreements for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons broke down due to disputes over inspections and the delivery of economic aid.
“If the North Koreans are genuine and allow these intrusive inspections, then it works,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “If the North Koreans aren’t — and the chances are very high that they are not — then the summit fails.”
Trump last year pressured the United Nations Security Council to cut off most of North Korea’s exports and curb fuel imports to stop Kim from pursuing the capability to strike the US with a nuclear weapon. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres credited the sanctions for bringing North Korea to the table, saying in an interview last week they put a “straightjacket” on Kim’s regime.
Still, so far there’s little indication that Kim will give up his weapons all at once without getting anything in
return. State-run media has repeatedly chided the US for saying North Korea must give up its weapons completely for sanctions relief, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying this month the US was “deliberately provoking” the country.
In a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this month, Kim called for the US and North Korea to build trust through “phased and synchronous measures” that would lead to a political settlement “and eventually achieve denuclearisation.”
Trump’s team is looking at a much faster timeline. Bolton has often cited the Libya model, which involved Muammar Qaddafi shipping its nuclear weapons out of the country within a relatively short time period.
On Sunday, Bolton told CNN that Trump wants North Korea to get rid of “all aspects of their nuclear program,” including ballistic missiles, as well as its chemical and biological weapons.
“It’s an ambitious program,” Bolton said. “And that’s why it’s important to test whether, in fact, North Korea has made a strategic decision to give up weapons of mass destruction.”
Pompeo, who met with Kim extensively on two trips to Pyongyang in recent months, separately told CBS that the US won’t give North Korea “a bunch of money” only to have nothing to show for it. Still, Pompeo’s comments in a separate interview with Fox News spurred questions about whether the US would accept a deal that simply prevents North Korea from being able to hit the American homeland with a nuclear bomb.