fb-pixel Skip to main content

WASHINGTON — President Trump lost no time hailing the historic nature of Friday’s meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea. But the gauzy images and vows of peace by Kim Jong Un and his counterpart from the South, Moon Jae-in, have complicated Trump’s task as he prepares for his own history-making encounter with Kim.

While the two Korean leaders pledged to rid the heavily armed peninsula of nuclear weapons, they put no timetable on that process, nor did they define what a nuclear-free Korea would look like.

Instead, they agreed to pursue a peace treaty this year that would formally end the Korean War after nearly seven decades of hostilities.


The talk of peace is likely to weaken the two levers that Trump used to pressure Kim to come to the bargaining table. A resumption of regular diplomatic exchanges between the two Koreas, analysts said, will inevitably erode the crippling economic sanctions against the North, while Trump will find it hard to threaten military action against a country that is extending an olive branch.

To meet his own definition of success, Trump will have to persuade Kim to accept “comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea — something Kim has shown no willingness to accept in the past, and few believe he will accede to in the future.

“This summit has put even greater expectations, greater hype and greater pressure on Trump,” said Victor D. Cha, a Korea scholar at Georgetown University who was considered by the Trump administration to be ambassador to Seoul. “He hyped this meeting with his tweets, and now the entire focus is going to be on his negotiating prowess.”

In gushing coverage, North Korea’s main newspaper devoted four of its six pages on Saturday to the summit meeting.

It brightened its usually drab pages with 62 color photographs from the historic event. It even printed the leaders’ joint declaration professing a goal of denuclearization of the peninsula.


But, like other state-run North Korean media, the newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, gave no hint to its readers whether Kim would genuinely consider giving up his nuclear weapons, or what he might demand in return.

The price of failure would be high for Trump. The United States could face a split with its ally South Korea, which is deeply invested in ending its estrangement from the North.

Tensions could flare with China, North Korea’s main trading partner, which only grudgingly signed on to the sanctions and would be likely to balk at keeping them in place if Kim is talking about peace.

There is little question, senior officials and analysts said, that the US-led sanctions, combined with Trump’s bellicose vows to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it threatened the American homeland, helped bring Kim to the table.

But Trump is only one of three actors in this drama, and perhaps not the most crucial one. Moon, a progressive former human rights lawyer, ran for office on a platform of conciliation with the North and has moved aggressively to deliver on that promise.

He, not Trump, has set the pace and terms of the negotiation with the North, though US officials say that Seoul is closely coordinating with Washington.

Kim, for his part, made a bold bet on diplomacy. His motives for seeking a rapprochement are open to debate.


Skeptical analysts said the advancements in North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program — as much as sanctions or threatened military strikes — made the timing right for an overture. Others say he is replaying the cycle of provocation and conciliation pioneered by his father and grandfather.

Though Kim made gestures of his own — a pledge not to test bombs or long-range missiles, and an end to the North’s longtime insistence that US troops withdraw from the peninsula — he has not made any tangible concessions on his nuclear weapons.

The language in his joint statement with Moon about denuclearization was both vague and familiar to veterans of past negotiations with North Korea.

“He’s gotten all these meetings with world leaders without making any concessions,” said Jung H. Pak, a former CIA analyst who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. “So far, everything has been no-cost for Kim.”

Given the warmth of the Moon-Kim meeting, few analysts are predicting that Trump’s meeting with Kim will be sour.

The most likely situation is an encounter that produces more riveting imagery and results in a broad agreement to negotiate disarmament in return for an easing of North Korea’s economic isolation.

With the North seeking to reestablish diplomatic and economic ties to the South, Trump will find it difficult to play the cards he used during his first year in office.

Administration officials said their job was to remind the president of the proper sequence of negotiations with North Korea: tangible steps toward denuclearization, followed by an easing of sanctions, and then a peace treaty.


As always, though, the wild card is Trump himself.

“He sees this as a Nixon-in-China moment, and he will want to move quickly, where patience is the order of the day,” said Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs.