President Donald Trump announced plans for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, as experts — including his own military and security advisers — warned that the upcoming meeting is likely to yield as few tangible results as the first one.
Trump announced at the State of the Union speech late Tuesday that he will meet with Kim in Vietnam on Feb. 27 and 28. Stephen Biegun, the president’s envoy to North Korea, was in Pyongyang Wednesday to lay the groundwork for the summit later this month.
The two leaders’ first meeting in Singapore last June led to an agreement that Pyongyang would “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but North Korea has not made any progress on that goal in the months since.
Trump claimed credit in his speech for averting war between the U.S. and North Korea, saying the two countries would be “in a major war” by now, had he not been elected president.
The comment drew audible groans from congressional Democrats before House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who was seated on the dais behind Trump, raised a hand to silence them.
Democrats groan as Trump talks about how he thinks we'd be at war with North Korea if he hadn't been elected pic.twitter.com/ISy7JOJmMX
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 6, 2019
“Kim Jong-un has to be extremely pleased that he’s been able to get legitimacy on an international front, and has done virtually nothing to change his behavior within his own country,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN on Wednesday.
“It is baffling, again, as to what the president expects to achieve by a second summit.”
A panel of U.N. experts has found that North Korea has made no progress on denuclearization and is actively working to hide its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities from possible U.S. air strikes, CNN reported yesterday. The same confidential report also found that North Korea has skirted international sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program.
South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who has pursued a detente with Kim after decades of increasing tensions on the border separating North from South, has been eager to see the Trump administration continue to pursue direct talks with Pyongyang.
“We hope that both leaders will take more detailed and concrete steps in Vietnam,” spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom told The New York Times on Wednesday.
Critics on both sides of the aisle called for negotiators to come to an agreement on ways to verify that North Korea actually is in compliance with whatever restrictions are imposed on it.
Biegun seemed to agree to that approach, at least in principal, during a speech at Stanford University last week.
“President Trump has made clear both to North Korea as well as to our team that he expects significant and verifiable progress on denuclearization, actions that are bold and real, to emerge from that next summit,” Biegun said.
During a question-and-answer session after his remarks, Biegun signaled that the Trump administration might be more willing than its predecessors to make concessions to North Korea to improve the prospects for a deal, rather than waiting for Pyongyang to denuclearize.
“What we’re talking about is simultaneously looking at ways to improve relations, looking at ways to advance a more stable and peaceful, and ultimately, a more legal peace regime on the Korean Peninsula – how we advance denuclearization,” he said.
Biegun also acknowledged that the two sides don’t yet agree on what they actually mean by “denuclearization” — a massive cloud that hung over Trump and Kim’s last summit in Singapore and threatens to darken their meeting in Vietnam, too.
The White House has generally expressed satisfaction with North Korea’s conduct since last June’s talks and frequently points out that Pyongyang has not launched any missile tests since the two leaders met. The U.S. Intelligence Community, as recently as during a Capitol Hill hearing last week, has said that the regime’s intentions are to remain a permanent nuclear power.
Experts also take exception with Washington’s view that it brought North Korea to heel.
Vipin Narang, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out Tuesday that rapid advances in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities — not the Trump administration’s diplomacy — caused the U.S. to back off of pursuing military options.
“O.K., let’s be clear that North Korea’s successful acquisition of a nuclear ICBM is why there was no war with North Korea,” Narang tweeted Tuesday night.
That’s precisely the effect Kim hopes his nuclear arsenal will have, experts say — deterring a military attack by the United States aimed at forcing regime change.
Daniel Coats, Trump’s director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that U.S. intelligence agencies do not believe North Korea will ever willingly give up its nuclear weapons arsenal — a stinging rebuke to White House messaging on Trump’s success with North Korea.
“We currently assess that North Korea … is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability,” Coats said, “because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”