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    From "fire and fury" to face to face talks; engagement stumbles as North Korea re-asserts defiant posture

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    From "fire and fury" to face to face talks; US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim meet for landmark talks in Singapore; engagement stumbles as North Korea re-asserts defiant posture


    On June 12, 2018, United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met for landmark face to face talks in Singapore, with the goal of denuclearization on the negotiating table.  The meeting resulted in a joint statement reiterating objectives set forth in the pre-summit preparation, and committing to future dialogue. By July 2018, the positive spirit of engagement had soured, with the North continuing its nuclear activity and assuming a defiant tone.

    1. Pre-summit considerations -- 

    Following the April 2018 meeting between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea, Kim Jong-un  and Moon Jae-in,  all attention was refocusing on the impending meeting between North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un and United States President Donald Trump. 

    The Inter-Korean summit made clear that North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, craved international validation.  With Donald Trump agreeing to meet for face to face talks with the North Korean leader, essentially elevating his cachet on the international stage, Kim Jong-un was walking into that meeting with a concession under his belt. 

    One key question that would be at the center of Kim-Trump talks would be whether or not the two countries viewed denuclearization the same way.  North Korea would likely want to make that declaration of denuclearization without actually relinquishing its nuclear weapons and interests.  The United States would presumably want to see verifiable evidence of an irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear program.  

    The unpredictability of Trump, in conjunction with the North Korean record of not keeping promises, could together add layers of turmoil.  It was alway possible that Trump could make a deal that could negatively affect the leverage of South Korea and Japan, essentially damaging long-term Asian alliances.  It was also possible that Trump could feel provoked into upending the peace process.  At the same time, North Korea has proven itself adept at making nuclear promises it does not keep while extracting lucrative concessions.

    On the ground in South Korea,  Perry Carmack of the Carnegie think tank observed that there was "palpable public excitement in Seoul" about the path forward in the aftermath of the Inter-Korean summit. Carmack said via Twitter that Koreans believed that Kim Jong-un's willingness to come to the negotiating table may have been motivated predominantly by economic pressure, but they also believed that he was spurred by the opportunity for face-to-face engagement with the United States president. 

    To that latter end, Koreans appeared to be fascinated by Trump's particular style of politics. On the former point, Carmack noted that Koreans were  realistic about the North's actual commitment to denuclearization, and did not think trying to rush through a comprehensive deal would be in the best interests of security and stability. 

    A few points of concern centered on worries that Trump would not be adequately prepared for his meeting with Kim, and that South Korea's security concerns would not be given proper consideration.  One point of consternation was Trump's withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. According to Carmack, the withdrawal of the United States from the Iranian nuclear agreement could fuel tensions between the United States and China, and could cause Kim Jong-un to be "reluctant to make concessions."

    The central question for South Korean -- and indeed, the world -- was if Trump, who has stylized himself as the "best dealmaker" would be able to forge a deal with North Korea that would lead to security and stability on the Korean peninsula.   

    2. The venue --

    It was announced that the meeting between Trump and Kim would be held in Singapore. That particular country was chosen due to it location in the Pacific separating Asia from North America.  As explained by a South Korean official, “The United States had preferred Geneva. But Singapore was selected as it was the most realistically viable destination Kim Jong Un could probably travel when considering the travel time and flight distance."  Another key consideration in selecting Singapore was its political neutrality.  A third rationale for the selection of Singapore was that the country was known for its hardline law and order system.  As such, it would be easier to ensure security at the summit venue.
    Note: The landmark meeting was scheduled to be held on June 12, 2018. 

    3. Cancellations and challenges --

    In mid-May 2018, North Korea cancelled high level talks with South Korea due to outrage over joint military drills between the South and the United States. North Korea's official KCNA news agency condemned the exercises as a "provocation" and accused the two countries of preparing for an invasion.

    On the heels of the historic inter-Korean summit held on April 27, 2018, there were to be continuing high level negotiations between the two Koreas.  These follow up talks were to be held in mid-May 2018 and were to take place at the Panmunjom military compound in the demilitarized zone between the two countries. On the agenda were matters such as a peace treaty between the two countries, a plan to end "hostile activities" in the region, and a plan for a Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons.  But the  military exercises, known as Max Thunder and including as many as 100 warplanes, appeared to have derailed that meeting. 

    It should be noted that South Korea insisted that the military exercises were routine and intended for defense purposes. 

    North Korea also warned the United States about the highly anticipated summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, which was scheduled to be held on June 12, 2018, in Singapore.  North Korea's official KCNA news agency issued the following statement: "The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-US summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities."

    The tone of that statement indicated a warning and not an outright cancellation.  However, North Korea followed up with a more pressing message as it threatened to cancel the summit if the United States demanded that Pyongyang relinquish its nuclear weapons. 

    For its part, the United States Department of State made clear that it was unaware of any changes and continued to  prepare for the Trump-Kim summit.  When asked if the summit would still go forward, President Donald Trump said in remarks to journalists, "We'll have to see." He added, "No decision, we haven't been notified at all ... We haven't seen anything, we haven't heard anything." 

    That being said, these moves by the North suggested that conventional wisdom about Pyongyang coming to the negotiating table in order to secure sanctions relief economic aid may not have been the animating impulse  of Kim Jong-un.  Instead, the North Korean leader was looking for international cachet.  As noted by Jeffrey Lewis, the founder of Arms Control Wonk and the Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies: "Kim isn’t offering to disarm, he’s offering conditions under which we can accept his bomb."

    On May 24, 2018, United States President Donald Trump cancelled the highly anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, set to take place on June 12, 2018, in Singapore.  In a letter that he reportedly composed himself, Trump  announced his withdrawal from the historic meeting, citing Pyongyang's "open hostility."  Trump wrote, "Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it would be inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting."

    Trump's decision came after the North withdrew from meetings with the South due to joint military exercises between South Korea and the United states, which Pyongyang viewed as a provocation.   

    Pyongyang also threatened to withdraw from the summit with the United States, and in fact missed a planning meeting with United States representatives in Singapore in mid-May 2018.  The broken contact was not limited to that planning meeting.  According to United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in trying to connect with counterparts in North Korea, "We got a lot of dial tones." 

    Pyongyang additionally infused further uncertainty into the negotiations process by rejecting the notion of denuclearization -- a key demand from the United States. While Pyongyang claimed that it had destroyed its nuclear site at Punggye-ri, as a gesture of good faith, the fact of the matter was the North refused to allow experts on site to verify that this measure actually ensued. Pyongyang's decision to only allow a small and select group of members of the media to watch the demolition of the Punggye-ri site was, in the eyes of the Trump White House, a sign of Pyongyang's lack of sincere commitment to denuclearization. 

    Making matters worse, on May 23, 2018, North Korea again issued a threat to pull out of the planned meeting in Singapore, and further declared that it ready for a nuclear confrontation with the United States.  

    According to White House insiders, "the last straw" occurred when North Korea publicly condemned United States Vice President Mike Pence, calling him a "political dummy" and threatened a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.” But in truth, that aggressive stance by North Korea appeared to have been spurred by Pence's threat to apply the "Libya model" to North Korea if it did not live up to the United States' expectations on denuclearization.   The "Libya model" has been championed by Trump's hardline national security adviser, John Bolton, and refers to the mode of denuclearization and regime change that applied to Libya's former leader, Muomar Qaddafi. 

    Bolton's mark on the decision for Trump to withdraw from the Singapore summit became clearer after a report from Washington Post. In that piece, it was reported that Bolton advised  Trump that the threatening language used by North Korea "was a very bad sign."  Alarmed that Kim Jong-un would call off the summit first and make him look desperate, Trump decided to withdraw first. 

    With talks off the table, the Trump administration appeared to have returned to its baseline of bellicose rhetoric. Indeed,  Trump himself in his letter to Kim Jong-un warned about the size of the United States' nuclear arsenal, saying, "You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used."  Later, when he was asked if the  cancellation of the summit increased the risk of war, Trump replied: "We'll see what happens."

    For his part, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has steadfastly engaged in vigorous diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, was said to be "perplexed" by the cancellation of the summit. A spokesperson for South Korea's Blue House, Kim Eui-kyeom said, “We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means.”

    Note that on May 25, 2018, President Trump indicated that the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un might still happen.  Then, in the days after President Trump sent the letter to Kim Jong-un cancelling their meeting, the climate appeared to have thawed in three significant respects, indicating that the meeting might yet take place.  

    First,  North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, did not respond to Trump's letter with his usual belligerence. Instead, he took the rare step of indicating that he wished to meet Trump “at any time.”  Kim Jong-un's measured response appeared to have set the foundation for the preparatory talks discussed below.

    Second, the two Koreas resumed communications and South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Kim Jong-un remained committed to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. In truth, however, there was no clear definition of what was really meant by “complete de­nuclearization." It was quite likely that a lack of clarity on that key issue could continue to affect negotiations as most experts did not believe that North Korea would easily relinquish its nuclear weapons.  Nevertheless, the return to the negotiating table was viewed as a positive development. 

    Third, a team of United States  officials traveled to North Korea to prepare for the meeting.  The United States delegation was led by Sung Kim, a former United States ambassador to South Korea and former nuclear negotiator who more recently served as an  envoy to the Philippines. The North Korean  delegation was led by Choe Son Hui, the North Korean vice foreign minister. The preparatory discussions were supposed to focus on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

    Via Twitter, Trump hailed the renewed engagement, declaring, "Our United States team has arrived in North Korea to make arrangements for the Summit between Kim Jong Un and myself." He added, "I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial Nation one day. Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!" 

    4. Landmark Trump-Kim summit set to take place --

    By the start of June 2018, Trump completely reversed himself, saying that he would attend the summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12, 2018.  Decreasing expectations about what could be accomplished during the meeting, Trump said that although he expected a "very positive result" with North Korea, there would be no agreements signed.  He said, "We're not going to go in and sign something on June 12th, and we never were."

    Nevertheless, Trump met with North Korea's former intelligence chief, Kim Yong Chol, at the White House Oval Office.  It was the first high ranking North Korean official to visit the White House in close to two decades.  Trump posed for photographs with Him Yong Choi, even smiling, and  patting his arm. 

    Trump hailed his meeting with the North Korean official saying, "Good meeting today. I think it's a great start."  The remarkable show of friendliness was at odds with the fact that Kim Yong Choi  was actually subject to United states sanctions. In a break from the harsh rhetoric he has used in the past regarding the North, Trump seemed to distance himself from the "maximum pressure" position of his own policy as he noted, "We're getting along, so it's not a question of maximum pressure. At some point, hopefully ... for the good of millions of people, a deal will be worked out."

    In the second week of June 2018, both United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un traveled to Singapore to participate in the highly anticipated summit. 

    North Korean state media heralded the meeting, saying that there was a possibility that Pyongyang could "establish a new relationship" with the United States.  For his part,  Trump  said he had a "good feeling" about the meeting, saying via Twitter that there was "excitement in the air" in Singapore.

    Ahead of the June 12, 2018, meeting, North Korean  state media indicated that the meeting aimed to cover  "broad and in-depth opinions" and would seek  to "establish a permanent and peaceful regime in the Korean peninsula."  Also mentioned in the Rodong Sinmun  editorial was the goal of "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."  On the issue of future relations, the editorial signaled a hopeful note as follows: "Even if a country had a hostile relationship with us in the past, our attitude is that if this nation respects our autonomy... we shall seek normalization through dialogue."

    5. History Made --

    On June 12, 2018, history was made when United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met face to face in Singapore, shaking hands and smiling at one another, before meeting to discuss ways to denuclearize  the Korean peninsula.  The summit took place at the Capella hotel on Singapore's Sentosa luxury resort island.  

    The visual of the two leaders shaking hands and smiling, followed by Trump and Kim sitting together before American and North Korean flags could only be regarded as historic. 

    Sitting alongside Trump ahead of actual negotiations, and basking in his elevation to the world stage, the North Korean dictator quipped, "Nice to meet you Mister President." For his part, Trump gave the "thumbs up" sign and predicted that they would have a "terrific relationship." He said, "We will have a terrific relationship. I have no doubt."

    Trump went on to say, "I feel really great. It's gonna be a great discussion and I think tremendous success. I think it's gonna be really successful and I think we will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt." Kim acknowledged the difficult road to the negotiating table, saying: "Well, it was not easy to get here. The past has ... placed many obstacles in our way but we overcame all of them and we are here today." Trump replied, "That's true."

    Negotiations followed in the library between the two men with only interpreters present. Following that initial closed door meeting, the two leaders re-emerged and were joined by senior officials from their respective countries.

    The meeting rated high on style as Kim Jong-un -- a tyrannical dictator responsible for massive human rights violations of members of his own family, his government, and prisoners in North Korean gulags, as well as a violator of several United Nations resolutions -- was granted international celebrity status.  His access to the United States president on the world stage also managed to transform him from pariah to world leader.  

    While South Koreans, undoubtedly, hailed the development positively, perhaps believing they were one step closer to peace on the Korean peninsula, there was a rising chorus of doubt from the international community as the actual return on investment for this move.  Dialogue was, of course, preferable to war, granting concessions to North Korea so early in the process without securing more concrete commitments to denuclearization was not in keeping with notions of productive diplomacy.  

    With Trump arriving in Singapore after a contentious g7 summit in Canada with Western allies,  there was wide criticism of the United States' hostility  to the leaders of countries like Canada, and his lack of interest in cooperation with countries like  Germany and France, while offering fulsome words of praise for the North Korean dictator. Whereas Trump had characterized Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as "very dishonest" and "weak" due to a trade dispute. He cast his relationship with Kim -- after having met with the dictator for 45 minutes -- as  "very, very good" and "excellent."   Trump's further assessment of Kim as "a very talented man" with whom he "developed a very special bond" raised eyebrows. 

    In a news conference following the landmark Singapore Summit, the United States and North Korea signed a joint statement outlining the path forward.  The four provisions of the statement were as follows: 

    1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.

    2. The United States and DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

    3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula

    4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

    The statement ended with a call to continue negotiations, as follows:

    "President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un commit to implement the stipulations in the joint statement fully and expeditiously. The United States and the DPRK commit to hold follow-on negotiations, led by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and a relevant high-level DPRK official, at the earliest possible date, to implement the outcomes of the US-DPRK summit."

    In truth, the statement was a reiteration of the provisions that had been developed in the pre-summit preparations and not a product of the landmark Trump-Kim meeting. It nonetheless provided the two leaders something to point to as a sign of goodwill.  

    Critics, however, noted that the statement and the "go forward" action items fell short of the actual goal of the negotiations, which was to get North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons, even though it was referenced in item 3. It should be noted that when he was asked by the media if he would relinquish his nuclear program, Kim Jong-un did not respond. 

    In remarks after the negotiations, Trump confirmed that joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea would be halted.  In fact, he went so far as to say that the war games would save the United States "a tremendous amount of money," adding: "Plus, I think it's very provocative."

    That move was viewed with some skepticism, as it would stand as a clear concession to North Korea, which was yet to expressly commit to denuclearization.  Some critics saw the decision by Trump to halt the joint military drills with the South as appeasement of sorts. Whether or not the move would prove to be canny calculation was yet to be seen; however, it certainly would shift the balance of power in east Asia -- and to the benefit of China. 

    In a news conference following the landmark talks, President Trump said that he  would consider visiting Pyongyang and also played up the "real estate" possibilities in North Korea for the future. In footage of military tests, he had noticed long stretches of beaches.  He said, "They have great beaches. You can see that whenever they're exploding cannons into the ocean. I said, 'boy, look at that beach, wouldn't that make a great condo?' You could have the best hotels."

    During the news conference, a reporter reminded Trump that he had, at one point, characterized North Korea as one of the more brutally oppressive regimes on earth and asked if the United States president still  believed that was the case.  Trump responded: "I believe it's a rough situation over there. It's rough in a lot of places, by the way, not just there."

    In response to a question from reporters on the longer term success of the Singapore Summit, Trump admitted that in six months, he might be proved wrong.  However, Trump said would come up with “some excuse” if that happened.

    6. Reality strikes as North Korea continues its nuclear activity

    United States intelligence officials concluded that North Korea has no genuine intention to abandon its nuclear stockpile based on new evidence reported by NBC News on June 29, 2018, and the Washington Post on June 30, 2018. Furthermore, the North Korean regime has been actively increasing its production of fuel for nuclear weapons and working to conceal its secret nuclear testing facilities. 

    This intelligence assessment seemed to contradict Trump’s tweeted assessment of the U.S.-North Korean summit on June 12, 2018, where he said "there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea." Intelligence officials anonymously disclosed to reporters that the assessment was based on evidence gathered in the weeks following the summit. 

    All of the evidence suggested that the North Korean regime was not genuinely committed to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and that it intended to extract as many concessions from the Trump administration as it could -- for example, the United States canceled its military training exercises in the Korean peninsula). 

    Despite these concessions to the North, Pyongyang assumed a defiant posture in July 2018.  

    Following a visit to Pyongyang by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the North Korean government condemned the United States' demand for denuclearization as “gangster-like.”  A North Korean foreign ministry statement broadcast by the official KCNA news agency read as follows: "The U.S. side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization."

    The North Korean government further accused the United States of creating "trouble" by making the same demands as previous administrations. Pyongyang was particularly affronted by the United States' demand for  “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” or CVID. 

    This characterization  from North Korea was a stark contrast from Pompeo's claim that there had been “good-faith negotiations” with counterparts in Pyongyang.  In remarks to reporters, Pompeo said, “These are complicated issues, but we made progress on almost all of the central issues. We had productive, good-faith negotiations.”

    The contrasting assessments cast doubt on the success of Trump's big gamble.  First, it undermined the very purpose for engagement, suggesting that the two sides did not even have alignment on goals.  Second, it suggested that after it had extracted certain "gifts" from the United States, such as legtimacy on the international stage, sidesteppping of human rights issue,  as well as an end to military exercises on the peninsula, North Korea  resorted to type.  It was making promises on denuclearization it had no intention of keeping, it was continuing  its nuclear development after extracting concessions, and it was re-assuming a defiant posture.  

    That defiance was all the more troubling since Trump himself had claimed that the North Korean nuclear threat was "over" despite the fact that the hard work of diplomacy had barely begun.  Moreover, details related to denuclearization on the peninsula had not even surfaced.

    In fact, via Twitter, Trump declared after the Singapore summit, “North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer - sleep well tonight!” Weeks later at the start of July, 2018,Trump asserted that “we signed a wonderful paper saying they’re going to denuclearize their whole thing. It’s going to all happen.”

    While the diplomatic path was not yet closed as a result of these deveopments, it was clear that Trump's "victory lap" (akin to George W. Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" signage on a carrier during the Iraq War) had been premature.  

    It was to be seen if a forthcoming meeting between the two sides, set for July 12, 2018 in the border village of Panmunjom between the two Koreas would be more productive.

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