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As North Korea offers to give up nuclear arms, Trump administration insists it’s not ‘starry-eyed’

Undated photo from North Korean News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visiting a Korean People's Army unit, in an undisclosed location, North Korea. Photo released August 2017. (Balkis Press/Abaca Press/TNS)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised at a meeting with his South Korean counterpart last week to give up his nuclear arms in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to attack his country, a spokesman for the South Korean president said Sunday.

Top aides to President Donald Trump signaled skepticism, but insisted that the president’s unconventional diplomacy had already yielded greater achievements than his predecessors could claim in reining in the North’s rogue nuclear and ballistics program.

Kim also offered to allow in experts and journalists from the United States and South Korea to witness the shutdown next month of the North’s only known nuclear testing site, according to Yoon Young-chan, a South Korean presidential spokesman.

In his talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim also sought to dispel the notion that the promise to shut down the nuclear testing site under Mount Mantap was an empty gesture because it had become too unstable to use anyway after the North’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date, in September.

“Some say that we are terminating facilities that are not functioning, but you will see that we have two more tunnels that are bigger than the existing ones, and that they are in good condition,” Yoon quoted Kim as saying.

This month, North Korea said it had suspended its nuclear tests, along with ballistic-missile tests, and announced plans to shut down the test site.

In the meeting with Moon, Kim insisted he did not want to threaten the United States or anyone else, according to the South Korean presidential spokesman. While the two leaders talked of working toward “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, their meeting yielded no agreements on verification, or set any timetable for steps toward that end.

“Once we start talking, the United States will know that I am not a person to launch nuclear weapons at South Korea, the Pacific or the United States,” Kim said, according to Yoon.

South Korea’s presidential palace said Kim wants a U.S. commitment to bringing a formal end to the Korean War. The 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, so the two sides technically remain in a state of war.

“If we maintain frequent meetings and build trust with the United States and receive promises for an end to the war and a nonaggression treaty, then why would we need to live in difficulty by keeping our nuclear weapons and suffer?” the North Korean leader asked, according to the South Korean account. “We will not repeat the painful history of the Korean War.”

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said Kim’s seemingly conciliatory rhetoric was not being accepted at face value, and indicated that no easing of sanctions against North Korea would take place until there was a commitment to full denuclearization.

Crediting American pressure with nudging North Korea along, Bolton said the Trump administration would demand evidence that Kim’s pledges were “real and not just rhetoric.”

“We’ve heard this before,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” adding that “the North Korean propaganda playbook is an infinitely rich resource.” Interviewed separately on “Fox News Sunday,” Bolton said “nobody is starry-eyed” about the North following through on promises.

In a symbolic yet practical gesture of cooperation, Kim also told Moon that North Korea would set its clocks to match South Korean time, Yoon said. Since 2015, the North had declared itself a separate time zone, half an hour behind that observed in Seoul and Tokyo.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was still the CIA director when he met with Kim over Easter weekend, played down concerns that Trump’s meeting with Kim, planned to take place in May or June, could be knocked off track if the president follows through on threats to withdraw the United States from the landmark nuclear accord with Iran.

“I don’t think Kim Jong Un is staring at the Iran deal and saying, ‘Oh goodness, if they get out of that deal, I won’t talk to the Americans anymore,’” Pompeo told reporters traveling with him Sunday on a flight from Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, to Israel.

Pompeo said Kim had “higher priorities, things that he is more concerned about” than whether the Trump administration would refuse by a May 12 deadline to waive sanctions against Tehran. European allies who are party to the world powers’ accord with Iran have urged the U.S. administration to adhere to its international commitments or risk being seen as an untrustworthy partner.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both came to Washington last week to personally lobby Trump to not undermine the nuclear accord, which was a signature achievement of his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

In an interview taped earlier in Riyadh and aired Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Pompeo sought to dispel the idea that Trump was naive in his approach to North Korea, which has a history of making promises to scale back its nuclear ambitions, and then reneging.

“This administration has its eyes wide open,” Pompeo said. “We know the history. We know the risks. We’re going to be very different — we’re going to negotiate in a different way than has been done before.”

Trump himself has dismissed critics’ concerns that in agreeing to the sit-down meeting with Kim without preconditions, he was offering a murderously dictatorial regime an enormous boost in prestige.

“Things are going very well, time and location of meeting with North Korea is being set,” the president wrote Saturday on Twitter.

There is concern that North Korea has no intention of carrying through on promises of denuclearization — at least not without linking that to demands that the United States would probably find unacceptable.

North Korea has long sought the removal of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops from South Korea, and has railed against the existence of an American nuclear umbrella for Washington’s allies Japan and South Korea.

Trump has blown hot and cold on Kim, directing both harsh insults and lavish compliments at the young North Korean leader. Last year, the U.S. president derided Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” but last week, he praised him as “open and “honorable.”

Even some longtime critics of Trump acknowledged that his zigging and zagging might have led Kim to seek negotiations.

“I think it’s more than fair to say that the combination of the president’s unpredictability and bellicosity had something to do with the North Koreans deciding to come to the table,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said on ABC’s “This Week.”

But Schiff also suggested it was dangerous to prematurely claim a breakthrough in dealing with the mercurial North Korean leader.

“Before the president takes too much credit, or hangs out the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, he needs to realize we may go into a confrontational phase,” Schiff said. “And he may not want the full blame if things go south.”

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© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.