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What Trump has already given up to North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during a celebration for nuclear scientists and engineers who contributed to a hydrogen bomb test, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on September 10, 2017.
KCNA via Reuters
Celebrating with his nuclear team.
  • Steve Mollman
By Steve Mollman

Weekend editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

As he’s prone to do, Donald Trump yesterday (April 22) tweeted angrily in response to something he saw on TV.

What enraged him this time appears to have been a line of negative questioning by NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press to Marc Short, Trump’s chief congressional negotiator. Todd asked Short what the US got out of agreeing to a top-level summit with North Korea.

Using one of his signature personal insults against Todd, Trump tweeted that “we haven’t given up anything” and that North Korea has “agreed to denuclearization.”

In truth, granting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a direct meeting with the president of the US is a major concession, as Todd suggested, and North Korea looks highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons.

Let’s meet up

North Korea has long sought, without success, a summit with a sitting US president because it would confer legitimacy upon the Kim regime. The US has never extended diplomatic recognition to North Korea. Technically the two nations are still at war, going back to the 1950-53 conflict, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

Last month, Trump abruptly agreed to a summit with Kim, after South Korean officials relayed the invitation in person following an earlier meeting with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang. It was a major victory for North Korea—generally in such a scenario, one might expect the White House to agree to diplomatic meetings at lower levels to lay the groundwork for a possible top-level summit, but here the North Koreans had achieved something much bigger.

South Korean president Moon Jae-in also played a major role, putting to rest fears of “Korea passing,” a term describing concerns in South Korea that the country had been sidelined as other powers decided the fate of the Korean peninsula.

Trump, ever the showman, has never been big on international diplomacy. In November he told Fox News, when asked about the many vacancies in the State Department, that “I’m the only one that matters.” His administration still has no ambassador to South Korea.

North Korea has long believed that by developing and demonstrating its nuclear prowess, it would leave the US with no choice but to agree to a top-level summit. Though doubts persist over whether North Korea can deliver nuclear warheads via long-range missiles in working order, as it claims, Kim declared in November that his nation had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” Having Trump agree after that to a top-level summit was a clear win for Pyongyang.

A “treasured sword”

Trump also stated in his tweet yesterday that North Korea has “agreed to denuclearization,” after Kim announced over the weekend that he would discontinue testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Trump tweeted in response to the development that it was “very good news.”

But many observers believe Kim will never give up his nukes, seeing them as essential to his regime’s survival, and noted that agreeing to suspend nuclear activities in exchange for economic concessions—only to resume them again later—is a well-established part of North Korea’s playbook.

The report on Kim’s announcement by KCNA, North Korea’s state-run news agency, said the country ”will not use nuclear weapons nor transfer nuclear weapons or nuclear technology under any circumstances unless there is nuclear threat and nuclear provocation” against it.

That doesn’t sound like a country planning to give up its existing nukes, which KCNA described as a “powerful treasured sword” acquired through hard work and belt-tightening by the North Korean people. With that sword acquired, it added, the country will now focus on “building a powerful socialist economy and markedly improving the standard of people’s living.”

Looking ahead to the potential US-North Korea summit, one possibility is that Pyongyang will insist upon numerous, prolonged stages for reducing its nuclear capabilities—even as, ultimately, it keeps its “treasured sword.” As for the nuclear test site North Korea said it would dismantle, the reasons for that might be more practical than anything else—after hosting six nuclear tests over the years, it may have become too unstable to use any longer.

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