As the United States prepares for a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump, the president is emphasizing the importance of a denuclearized North Korea.
“Got to get rid of the nuclear weapons. If it’s not a success, I will respectfully leave. It’s very simple,” Trump said Monday at a press conference, but added he’s hopeful that talks with Kim will confirm reports that his isolated nation is willing to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Kim met last week with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-In, in a historic peace summit in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. On Monday, Trump floated the idea of meeting Kim in the DMZ rather than a neutral site like Singapore or Mongolia, as had been discussed.
“I think that some people maybe don’t like the look of that and some people like it very much. I threw it out today as an idea,” Trump said. “There’s something that I like about it because you’re there. You’re actually there, where if things work out, there’s a great celebration to be had on the site, not in a third-party country.”
But Karl Friedhoff, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs who focuses on Korean and Asian policy, warns it’s far too early to break out the champagne.
“It’s important to understand that North Korea is not going to denuclearize,” Friedhoff said. “Their move to close off their main nuclear testing site is a good step. … But we need to keep our expectations realistic. Full denuclearization is probably not going to happen.”
“(North Korea) always (operates) on a tit-for-tat basis,” said Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago, whose research focuses on modern Korean history. “Whatever they’re willing to do, whether it’s to suspend testing missiles and bombs or invite inspectors in to see them close their nuclear bomb facility, they’re going to want something in return from the U.S.”
Whatever North Korea ends up wanting from the U.S., Cumings thinks a major driver behind the apparent progress toward peace is South Korea’s President Moon.
“(He) is very serious in what he’s doing, and he has a long-range plan to reconcile, if not reunify, with North Korea, to get a peace regime on the peninsula, and I think most importantly he wants to start rebuilding the North Korean economy bit by bit and bring North Korea out of economic isolation,” Cumings said.
Friedhoff, who just returned from a security conference in Seoul, says conversations he had on the sidelines indicate the Moon administration is eyeing a two-year timeline for denuclearization – which Friedhoff thinks may be too slow for the more hawkish members of the Trump administration. He also warns it’s important to ask why North Korea has come back to the bargaining table.
“I don’t think it’s because of South Korean or U.S. actions,” Friedhoff said. “They have their own calculus going on, and we need to think very carefully about what that calculus is and what it means for their negotiating position.”