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Trump’s Korea plan echoes strategies tried in past

President Trump announced Friday that his summit with Kim Jong Un was back on.
President Trump announced Friday that his summit with Kim Jong Un was back on.(Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — President Trump never tires of suggesting that his predecessors left him the “mess” of a nuclear-armed North Korea — a legacy of errors he vows not to repeat.

But as Trump announced Friday that his summit meeting with Kim Jong Un was back on, there were moments when he echoed Bill Clinton in his failed effort to settle another North Korea crisis nearly a quarter-century ago.

Rather than sticking with the demand that North Korea disarm immediately, Trump opened the door to a prolonged freeze on the North’s existing nuclear capability, with vague declarations that disarmament will follow.

That is essentially the deal Clinton embarked on with Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in 1994.

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Rather than warning that he would keep the younger Kim’s feet to the fire with sanctions until he complies, Trump said after meeting in the Oval Office with North Korea’s spy chief that he no longer wanted to use the term “maximum pressure,” a phrase that dominated the vocabulary of his aides for a year.

And rather than keeping a single-minded focus on nuclear weapons, Trump suggested that the most tangible outcome of his meeting in Singapore might be some kind of peace agreement to formally end the Korean War.

That same lofty idea featured in a 2005 joint statement that inaugurated George W. Bush’s failed effort with Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, to halt the North’s nuclear progress.

Such comparisons are always inexact because Trump has inherited a far more complex, potentially catastrophic, problem than his predecessors faced: a North Korea that has solved the mysteries of manufacturing a nuclear bomb, tested one with 15 times the power of the blast that leveled Hiroshima, and is now on the brink of proving its missiles could reach the continental United States.

Still, if Trump’s remarks Friday are a blueprint for how he plans to negotiate with Kim, they foreshadow a process that would resemble — rather than reinvent — those undertaken by Clinton and Bush.

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“This is the way it’s supposed to go,” said Victor D. Cha, who negotiated with North Korea for Bush and was considered by the Trump administration for ambassador to Seoul. “The question is: Does Trump understand that this is what has been done in the past — that what he’s doing is not big-bang historic?”

Of course, no North Korean leader has ever met an American president as an equal. For Kim, that achievement alone will give the 34-year-old leader incalculable prestige in his broken country.

And Trump sees the meeting as a historic opportunity to use his dealmaker’s skills and personal connections to bridge gaps that his predecessors could not close.

In the process, Trump is upending the usual sequence of events in diplomacy: beginning with a leader-to-leader summit meeting, and then leaving the details to underlings.

What is most remarkable, however, is that Trump agreed to the meeting on an impulse in March, pulled out of it a week ago after reacting to threats in a North Korean statement, and now has restored it without obtaining, at least in public, even the minimum concessions of the kind that North Korea made a decade ago.

Trump has gotten further with North Korea than any American president since that time. Until recently, White House officials said that was because of his laser focus on harsh sanctions and his threat to use military force, giving the United States leverage it never had before.

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But in the past few days, trying to coax the North Koreans to keep the June 12 meeting on the calendar, Trump now risks making Clinton’s mistake: an agreement so thin and slow to execute that Kim might be able to run the play his father and grandfather mastered.

With sanctions weakened, he could wait things out, then look for a way to resume his nuclear program.

Indeed, Trump appears more willing to make concessions to North Korea than he is to Iran, which has a small fraction of the North’s nuclear infrastructure and no nuclear weapons. That might partly reflect the fact that ending the threat from North Korea is Trump’s bid for history.

The president’s evolution toward a more conventional approach was dictated by events he helped set in motion, Cha said. The diplomatic thaw initiated by Kim and South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, and endorsed by Trump, has already weakened the sanctions regime he spent more than a year marshaling.

South Korea, China, and Russia all seem poised to use the new era to resume trade and economic aid to North Korea — before any agreement by the North to give up anything has been achieved.

Critics say the president is squandering hard-won leverage, the product of 15 months of diplomacy that obtained the toughest United Nations restrictions on trade in history, as well as pushing China, which was angered by Kim’s relentless provocations, to embrace for the first time a strategy of isolating North Korea.

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“Trump is gradually being molded into positions that have been tried before, but with none of the leverage that previous administrations worked to build, and which the Trump administration had acquired through 2017,” said Daniel R. Russel, who was involved in the Clinton-era negotiations and later advised Obama on North Korea.

In the joint statement it signed with the United States and four other countries in 2005, for example, North Korea said it would give up its nuclear arsenal and join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as soon as possible.

“Trump apparently just agreed to a summit without any way forward on nuclear weapons or much of anything apart from a commitment to start a process whose purpose for now is ‘getting to know you,’ ” said Christopher R. Hill, who led the negotiations with North Korea for Bush.