The push for a second summit came almost entirely from the President Donald Trump himself, according to current and former White House officials. | Susan Walsh/AFP/Getty Images
President Trump is excited to meet Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. Others fear he’ll give too much away.
By ELIANA JOHNSON
02/22/2019 05:02 AM EST
President Donald Trump is eagerly anticipating his second summit with Kim Jong Un, touting his “really meaningful” relationship with the North Korean strongman and insisting he’s ready to give up his nuclear arsenal.
In Washington, he’s pretty much the only one who feels that way.Story Continued Below
Many, including several of the president’s top advisers, are less excited. Some have expressed trepidation not only that the summit, scheduled to take place next week in Hanoi, may not yield big results. They worry, too, that Trump, eager to declare victory on the world stage, could make big concessions in exchange for empty promises of denuclearization.
The push for a second summit came almost entirely from the president himself, according to current and former White House officials — but Trump remains undeterred. He has gushed about the “wonderful letters” he has received from Kim, as well as the “good rapport” he has developed with the North Korean leader and the enormous media coverage the event in Vietnam’s capital is likely to attract. Trump even bragged, in a phone call Tuesday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, that he is the only person who can make progress on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, according to a person briefed on the conversation, and complained about negative news coverage he has received.
Inside the administration, concern about the upcoming summit has come from predictable skeptics, including national security adviser John Bolton, a longtime opponent of diplomacy with North Korea, but also from unexpected corners. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the man charged with leading the negotiations, has expressed frustration to allies about the lack of diplomatic progress and voiced concern that his boss will get outmaneuvered, according to a source with direct knowledge of the conversations. Other top officials, such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis, simply worked to keep as much distance from the negotiations as possible.
“There is not optimism in the administration,” said Ian Bremmer, founder and president of the Eurasia Group. “Pompeo is deeply skeptical that we are going to get anything of substance on denuclearization from Kim Jong Un, and Pompeo believes the North Koreans are just playing for time.”
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The State Department declined to comment. A spokesman for Bolton did not reply to a request for comment.
Bolton said bluntly in December that the North Koreans had not honored even the vague pledge, made in a joint declaration that came out of last year’s Singapore summit, to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Since then, satellite images revealed that North Korea has continued to build out a number of hidden missile bases whose existence it has never acknowledged.
“They have not lived up to the commitments so far,” Bolton said at The Wall Street Journal’s annual CEO conference, seeming to distance himself from Trump’s view of the negotiations. “That’s why I think the president thinks another summit is likely to be productive.”
The North Koreans’ continuing work on the secret nuclear sites was revealed in a detailed report published by the Beyond Parallel program, run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The program’s director, Victor Cha, a former National Security Council official, said he and his colleagues packed the report with detailed images in the hopes of catching the attention of a president who doesn’t read, but responds to imagery, Cha said in an interview on Thursday.
The report did get Trump’s attention. The president blasted out a tweet about a New York Times story summarizing the report: “The story in the New York Times concerning North Korea developing missile bases is inaccurate,” Trump said. “We fully know about the sites being discussed, nothing new – and nothing happening out of the normal. Just more Fake News. I will be the first to let you know if things go bad!”
The administration is downplaying expectations for next week’s summit. Senior U.S. officials told reporters on Thursday that despite North Korea’s pledge to denuclearize last June, the two sides have yet to reach an agreement on what, exactly, denuclearization means — and whether Kim is committed to it. The summit, according to a senior U.S. official, will focus in part on “developing a shared understanding of what denuclearization is.”
“I don’t know if North Korea has made the decision yet to denuclearize,” the official said. Trump said earlier this week that, though he is in no rush to make a deal, he believes North Korea will “ultimately” denuclearize.
Pompeo, in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday, set a low bar for the upcoming meeting. “The good news is they haven’t conducted missile tests or nuclear tests in now well over a year so that’s better than the place that we found it when the Trump administration came into office, but as the president said yesterday and as the administration has said repeatedly, this is a long and difficult task,” he said.
Other officials have publicly contradicted the president’s optimistic line on Kim’s intentions.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel told a Senate panel last month that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear arsenal. “The regime is committed to developing a long-range nuclear armed missile that would pose a direct threat to the United States,” Haspel said.
The comments bothered Trump, according to NewsMax CEO Chris Ruddy. “I’m hearing from sources around the White House that there’s just general disappointment of the president with Director Coats,” Ruddy, a close ally of the president, told CNN host Christiane Amanpour this week. The White House declined to comment on Coats’ standing within the administration, but Trump told reporters Tuesday that he “hasn’t even thought about” firing him.
Since the president’s historic meeting with Kim in Singapore last June, when the two first met face-to-face, the North Koreans have shown reluctance to deal with any American official aside from the president himself. The State Department’s special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, struggled to persuade his North Korean counterparts to work directly with him until late December, according to half a dozen sources in and outside of government familiar with the negotiations. Though they have engaged over the past six weeks, their discussions have yielded little substantive progress, and Trump and Kim are slated for another one-on-one conversation in Hanoi, administration officials said Thursday.
“If the working-level people were achieving what they wanted to achieve, then I’d feel really good about this, but the North Koreans know that they can get a better deal from the president, so they’d rather talk to just him,” Cha said.
“The North Koreans basically won’t deal with anybody other than Trump. They won’t deal with Biegun, they won’t deal with Pompeo, so if there’s going to be any movement, it’s going come at that level,” said a former administration official. “The summit does have some potential to do good because it can break the logjam. But coming out of the summit, Trump is going to want to declare it a success and a victory and everybody else will be frustrated because nothing really has changed.”
Lawmakers are no more optimistic than many in the administration, and some have begun to turn the legislative gears, proposing a bill in advance of the summit that would prevent the president from striking any deal that involves a massive troop withdrawal from South Korea.
Introduced in late January by Reps. Mike Gallagher (R.-Wisc.) and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) the “United States and Republic of Korea Alliance Support Act” would prohibit the Pentagon from using funds to reduce troops levels in South Korea below 22,000 unless the defense secretary certifies to Congress that it can be done without harming U.S. national security.
The presence of nearly 30,000 American soldiers in South Korea has been an ongoing preoccupation for Trump, who ordered the Pentagon to produce plans for reducing troop numbers on the peninsula several weeks before his first summit with North Korea last June. His argument — that the U.S. bears too much of the economic burden for protecting South Korea — has alarmed experts and lawmakers alike, who have expressed concern about what the president might agree to without consulting his advisers, or in the face of their opposition.
It also has threatened to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, which for decades has relied on the U.S. as the ultimate guarantor of its security.
Last year in Singapore, the president impulsively agreed to halt joint military exercises with the South Koreans, a fact that White House chief of staff John Kelly was forced to convey to former Defense Secretary Mattis after the fact, according to a source familiar with the conversation. Though administration officials have said a troop withdrawal is not under consideration, experts and lawmakers remain concerned that a similar scenario could unfold.
“Two days is a very long time to be sitting there, so I’m concerned that Trump, freewheeling, will tell Kim that troops can be on the table,” said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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