Days ahead of his second summit with Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump is redefining success in his bid to force North Korea to relinquish its nuclear programme, tamping down public expectations amid evidence that Pyongyang has done little to curb its weapons production.
Trump is hopeful that his bilateral meetings with Kim on Wednesday and Thursday in Vietnam will re-create the spectacle of their first summit in Singapore — and perhaps distract from domestic political turmoil. But wide gaps remain between US and North Korean negotiators, who have yet to agree on a basic definition of what "denuclearisation" means to both sides.
Kim is travelling by train with Kim Yong Chol, a key negotiator, and Kim Yo Jong, the leader's sister. TV footage and photos distributed by the North's state-run news agency showed Kim inspecting a guard of honor at the Pyongyang station before waving from the train.
Senior Trump aides have privately expressed scepticism over the prospects that a deal can be reached to significantly advance the largely symbolic agreement announced in Singapore. Some fear that Trump could feel pressure to make a major concession to Kim during face-to-face talks, including a one-on-one session, in hopes of securing a reciprocal commitment he can herald as a political victory.
In recent days, Trump has sought to create the conditions to declare the summit a success regardless of the outcome. Having once demanded that the North give up its weapons quickly, Trump said last week he is in "no rush" as long as the regime maintains a testing moratorium on nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles that has been in place since November 2017. "I have no pressing timetable," he said.
Trump has portrayed the ratcheting down of tensions with North Korea as evidence of his ability to tackle seemingly intractable foreign policy issues.
But it's a risky strategy both politically and from a national security perspective — and one that rests on the shaky proposition that the warm feelings expressed by Trump and Kim, as well as the lack of provocative actions by North Korea, can last much longer even if negotiations fail to deliver more than the broad outlines of the Singapore deal.
Kim is likely to be well versed in how the summit plays into Trump's domestic political imperatives. Their meeting will take place hours after Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal lawyer, is scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill in a public hearing to testify about his dealings with the President.
Trump will be eager to divert attention, and some foreign policy experts said that could provide incentives for the President to pursue a splashy announcement — such as a declaration to formally end the Korean War, which has been suspended in an armistice since 1953 — that includes no concrete steps toward curbing production of fissile materials for its nuclear weapons.
US intelligence officials testified to Congress last month that it remains unlikely Kim would fully dismantle his arsenal, and some Trump aides, including national security adviser John Bolton, believe the North Koreans cannot be trusted and the talks are destined to fail.
"Talking is not progress; it's a means to an end," said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst on Northeast Asia whose recent analysis for the conservative Heritage Foundation found "no tangible progress" toward denuclearisation since Singapore.
"Trump seems to now define them not testing as a success. That's not a success," Klingner added, noting that Pyongyang had testing moratoriums for longer stretches during previous US administrations. "If there's no progress, then at what point does the US say, 'Look, they're stringing us along?'"
US negotiators said they are seeking a detailed road map for complete and verifiable denuclearisation, while Pyongyang is aiming for relief from punishing international economic sanctions.
Frustrated at the lack of progress in lower-level negotiations since Singapore, the US team has signalled that it is backing off unilateral demands and is willing to consider something closer to the "step-for-step" process, sought by Pyongyang, in which both sides make concessions along the way.
Stephen Biegun, the US special envoy to North Korea, reiterated last month that the US will not lift sanctions until denuclearisation is complete. But he added that his team is seeking to resolve the question of sequencing — "what am I going to do, what are you going to do, and who's going to act first? We didn't say we won't do anything until you do everything."
South Korea has urged the Trump Administration to take a small step forward on sanctions relief by endorsing modest inter-Korean economic and tourism partnerships that are barred under a web of UN sanctions, including the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex that was closed in 2016. Washington and Pyongyang are also reportedly discussing establishing permanent liaison offices to make communication easier.
- additional reporting AP