In what is likely to be a feverish 24 hours of negotiations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to hash out enough of a denuclearization agreement to allow President Donald Trump to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in less than two weeks.
The proposed venue and date are clear — June 12 in Singapore. Hotel rooms are tentatively booked. Planes are at the ready. Logistics teams are working out kinks. To the bemusement of late-night comedians, the commemorative coin for the Trump-Kim summit is already minted.
All that is missing is the deal: The North Koreans have not agreed to the immediate — or even the staged — dismantlement of their nuclear weapons arsenal and infrastructure that the White House has demanded.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that Pompeo and North Korean emissary Kim Yong Chol will discuss “the denuclearization of the peninsula” and as long as that remains the focus “we’re going to continue to shoot for June 12.”
Yet Pompeo faces many obstacles.
Although the New York session marks Pompeo’s third sit-down with Kim Yong Chol, a four-star general who is North Korea’s former spy chief, Pompeo is a neophyte in nuclear diplomacy. The former Kansas congressman has been secretary of state for barely a month, after serving a little more than a year as CIA director.
Kim Yong Chol has been a top aide of North Korea’s ruling dynasty since the days of Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader. He headed North Korea’s principal arms dealing apparatus and has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for that and other action. To visit New York, he had to obtain a special waiver from the State Department.
“Pompeo is a smart guy, but he doesn’t have experience with this. Kim Yong Chol has been involved in every negotiation since 1992. He can beat any American who goes up against him,” said a veteran U.S.-Korea negotiator who asked not to be quoted by name.
Pompeo also faces opposition in Washington. Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, a longtime advocate of a change of government in Pyongyang, nearly sabotaged the summit with provocative comments suggesting the surrender of Libya’s nuclear infrastructure in 2003 would be a model for North Korea.
North Korean leaders recoiled at the comparison with Libya, whose leader Moammar Gadhafi was ignominiously killed and mutilated by rebels aided by Western air power less than a decade after he had given up his nuclear program.
It didn’t help that the CIA, which Pompeo headed until last month, concluded in a recent intelligent assessment that North Korea has no intention of denuclearizing. The assessment did note that the North Koreans would like an American hamburger restaurant in Pyongyang, according to NBC, which broke the story.
Experts debate whether North Korea will eventually give up its nuclear arsenal but there is near unanimity that it won’t do it up front without significant U.S. concessions in return.
“To eliminate everything up front and virtually all at once is tantamount to a North Korean surrender scenario. It is unimaginable,” concluded a report released this week by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. The report said it could take at least a decade to fully dismantle the nuclear program.
North Korea has said it will not give up what it calls its “treasured sword” unless it is certain the United States has abandoned a “hostile policy” against it.
“It will take them watching American behavior over a long period of time, through more than one administration,” said Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project of the New York-based Social Science Research Council.
The Trump administration has veered between demands for instant denuclearization and a step-by-step approach. The White House position is that North Korea must agree to complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization, or CVID in diplomatic shorthand.
“Trump would like to get it all at once, but if he can’t, he’s making space for a phased in denuclearization,” said Scott Snyder, North Korea analyst with the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations.
Echoing several analysts, Jung Pak, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institute think tank, cautioned against the evident lack of preparation.
“Usually with a summit, the rule is no surprises: Every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed before it starts,” said Pak, a former CIA analyst specializing in the Koreas. “This time we can’t even agree on what denuclearization means.”
Pak said she expects the summit to go forward because Trump is so invested, and the North Koreans are so determined that it happen. “Kim Yong Chol will dangle just enough in front of Pompeo (so) that he can go back to Trump and say, without lying, they’re sincere,” Pak said.
Other points of contention have to do with whether to include North Korea’s biological and chemical weapons in a deal and whether North Korea would be allowed to maintain a civilian nuclear or space program.
The Trump administration has cobbled together a new team of North Korea specialists, trying to make up for the exodus of seasoned experts during the tumultuous last year.
Sung Kim, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, has been pulled from his post as envoy to the Philippines to lead a U.S. advance team now meeting a counterpart North Korean team in the buffer zone between the two Koreas. (The Trump administration has no ambassador in Seoul. Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, was nominated May 18 and awaits Senate confirmation.)
Andrew Kim, head of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, formed last year when Pompeo was CIA director, has been assigned to work with the secretary of State. He accompanied Pompeo on his two trips to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and is with him in New York.
While other teams are still working out logistics, the meetings in New York between Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol on Wednesday and Thursday will deal with the substance of the proposed summit. They most likely will determine whether this on-again-off-again summit will actually take place.
Administration officials declined to discuss in detail the issues that Pompeo and Kim will debate in New York, but the potential agenda is wide open.
“Trump is focused on having a historic meeting, but unless that event translates into setting mutually defined objectives, it will be meaningless,” said Snyder.
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