WASHINGTON — President Trump, increasingly concerned that his summit meeting in Singapore next month with North Korea’s leader could turn into a political embarrassment, has begun pressing his aides and allies about whether he should take the risk of proceeding with a historic meeting that he had leapt into accepting, according to administration and foreign officials.
Trump was both surprised and angered by a statement issued Wednesday by the North’s chief nuclear negotiator, who declared that the country would never trade away its nuclear weapons capability in exchange for economic aid, administration officials said. The statement, while a highly familiar tactic by the North, represented a jarring shift in tone after weeks of conciliatory gestures.
On Thursday and Friday, Trump peppered aides with questions about the wisdom of proceeding, and on Saturday night he called President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to ask why the North’s public statement seemed to contradict the private assurances that Moon had conveyed after he met Kim Jong Un, the 35-year-old dictator of the North, at the Demilitarized Zone in late April.
The president’s conversation with Moon, which was first reported by The Washington Post, came just three days before the South Korean leader was scheduled to arrive in Washington to meet with Trump on Tuesday. It was a sign of Trump’s discomfort, some officials speculated, that he could not wait to discuss the issue until Moon arrived for his meetings here, though there is no indication that the president is considering pulling out of the North Korea talks.
Trump’s aides have grown concerned that the president — who has said that “everyone thinks” he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts — has signaled that he wants the summit meeting too much. The aides also worry that Kim, sensing the president’s eagerness, is prepared to offer assurances that will fade over time.
Moreover, Trump’s decision this month to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal raises the stakes for the North Korea negotiation. If he emerges with anything less than what President Obama got, which in Iran included the verified shipment of 97 percent of all nuclear material out of the country, it will be hard for Trump to convince anyone other than his base that the negotiation was a success.
The aides are also concerned about what kind of grasp Trump has on the details of the North Korea program, and what he must insist upon as the key components of denuclearization. Moon and his aides reported that Kim seemed highly conversant with all elements of the program when the two men met, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made similar comments about Kim, based on his two meetings with him in Pyongyang, the North’s capital.
But aides who have recently left the administration say Trump has resisted the kind of detailed briefings about enrichment capabilities, plutonium reprocessing, nuclear weapons production and missile programs that Obama and President George W. Bush regularly sat through.
Grappling with North Korea in negotiations is a new experience not just for Trump, but also for everyone else in the upper ranks of his administration. South Korean officials say that John R. Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, has been in near daily contact with his counterpart in Seoul, trying to work out a strategy.
Bolton has been clear that in his view the president should use the Singapore meeting to declare that the North must give up its entire arsenal and nuclear infrastructure before crippling economic sanctions are eased.
The South has been advocating a more traditional confidence-building approach, in which concessions by the North result in a gradual lifting of sanctions. But Trump has said he will not repeat that technique, because it led to failure by his four immediate predecessors.
Until now, administration officials have been saying they expect Kim to agree to denuclearization at the Singapore summit meeting and to set a schedule for a fast down payment over the next six months, which would involve turning over some number of nuclear weapons, closing production facilities and allowing inspectors to range the country.
Those who have dealt with North Korea most intensively say that expectation will have to be scaled back if Trump expects success.
“If Trump is truly expecting to see a handover of nuclear weapons in six months, without anything in return, that is very unrealistic,” said Joseph Yun, the State Department’s North Korea coordinator until he retired a few months ago. He predicted that Trump would be forced into the kind of step-by-step measures that his predecessors attempted, “because there is no other way.”
Pompeo said on ABC News late last month: “This administration has its eyes wide open. We know the history. We know the risks.” He said the only measure of success would be “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” a phrase first used in the Bush administration, for which it proved unattainable.
Analysts at the CIA, where Pompeo was director before becoming secretary of state, have warned for years that they do not believe that Kim would trade away all of his nuclear weapons capability, no matter what the offer from the United States and its allies. But they have said there was a chance that he would suspend testing and give up some of the North’s capability — as long as it could be rapidly rebuilt — if he could win the removal of much of the US presence in the region.
Bolton has repeatedly cited the case of Libya, which turned over all of its nuclear-related equipment in 2003, as a model to follow for denuclearization. Libya received promises of economic integration with the West, little of which happened.
In 2011, its leader, Moammar Khadafy, was overthrown, dragged from a ditch, and killed. The North Koreans noticed, and much of the statement issued last week was a denunciation of Bolton and a vow never to bend to “great powers” seeking a similar deal.
But when reporters asked Trump about Libya, he managed, in one stroke, to contradict Bolton and misconstrue the importance of the trade of the nuclear program for economic rewards.
“The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all, when we’re thinking of North Korea,” Trump said. “If you look at that model with Khadafy, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him.” That referred to Western military intervention in 2011, not to the nuclear disarmament that came eight years before.
“Now that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely,” Trump warned, seeming to repeat exactly the threat that the North Koreans had warned against. “But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un is going to be very, very happy.”
Trump may be right: Kim presumably has many decades ahead of him as North Korea’s leader and has much to gain from improved economic conditions. But he would be betting his entire country on any nuclear deal, and most intelligence analyses in recent years have cast doubt that he, or the North Korean elite, would be willing to give up the security provided by nuclear arms.
Michael Green, a professor at Georgetown University and a leading expert on Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in Foreign Affairs that Kim was looking for something much larger than Trump was.
“Trump may be preparing for the wrong game: a two-player round of checkers when Kim is steeling for a multiplayer two-board chess match,” he wrote. “On one board will be the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, what Trump came to negotiate. On the other will be what Kim and the other participants know is also crucially at stake: the future of geopolitics in northeast Asia.” Kim sees himself as a player in that game long after the Trump administration is over.