WASHINGTON ― Even many critics of President Donald Trump have praised his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as a good first step toward peace between the United States and a longtime enemy that now has an unprecedented nuclear program. But establishing a new status quo to prevent a war that could kill millions likely depends on the outcome of follow-on talks that Trump has promised will begin next week.
Led by national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the new negotiations are supposed to ensure progress toward Trump’s goal: removing North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability. With the president personally directing the U.S. government’s messaging, officials are being careful not to get out ahead of him. A White House spokesperson declined to share any details on what Pompeo and Bolton have planned next week and the State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
But since the document the leaders signed Tuesday is so short on specifics, there’s a lot to work out. Experts and lawmakers warn that it’s unclear how much North Korea might be willing to concede, or how much the country might ask for in terms of greater access to the world economy or less U.S. defense cooperation with its rivals South Korea and Japan. Still, just continued dialogue can be a good thing, some commentators argue, particularly when the alternative might be war.
As the two sides continue to meet, the sanctions regime the Trump administration established to pressure Kim will remain in place, the president indicated Tuesday. But Pyongyang can count some wins: the propaganda value of the high-profile summit, and Trump’s surprise decision to cancel joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea.
The blindsided South Koreans said they are trying to understand U.S. intentions, so top American officials will likely work in coming days to reassure them and downplay Trump remarks that adopted the North Korean view of the exercises as unnecessary provocations. Vice President Mike Pence is already engaged in damage control on Capitol Hill; one senator said Pence told concerned lawmakers some joint operations would continue, but his press secretary then denied that claim.
The key thing for the Trump administration, then, is to figure out what it is trying to achieve. The U.S. will not give North Korea the normalcy and benefits Trump has promised until there is a “complete and verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Pompeo said Monday. Denuclearization requires multiple difficult tasks ― having Pyongyang accept serious international inspections, finding ways to penetrate its notoriously secretive systems without falling for propaganda and binding a regime used to international subterfuge to no future nuclear development. It’ll take more than one round next week to cover all that. Achieving President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, for instance, took more than a decade and many marathon negotiations.
“In propaganda terms, [Kim] came out ahead when you look past the soaring rhetoric and warm atmosphere during the summit. Fortunately, the United States did not ease the pressure of sanctions, and made clear that sanctions relief can only come with concrete steps toward denuclearization. So we have not given up our most important leverage as the action shifts to follow-on talks led by [Pompeo],” former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow wrote.
Pompeo’s boss, however, appears to simply want this process over and done with. Trump has cast doubt on the need to verify North Korea actually winding down its nuclear program, and is already predicting regular U.S.-North Korean ties will develop very fast. “We’ll meet many times,” Trump said of his budding relationship with Kim. And he has a deep belief that the North Korean leader will act in good faith and in the interests of his people’s future, even justifying Kim’s massive human rights violations by saying he had to be “tough.”
Rights abuses were one of several particular concerns that made no appearance in the two leaders’ declaration Tuesday. They’ll be discussed in the future, Trump said ― one more aspect of the two sides continuing to keep talking while, experts warn, North Korea deftly consolidates its new place on the world stage.
“The world,” the president promised, “will see a major change.”