While President Trump has in public enthusiastically praised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's Saturday announcement that he would cease nuclear and missile testing and shutter a testing site, behind closed doors, the Trump administration is reportedly unsure of how to interpret Kim's offer.
White House aides are skeptical of the freeze proposal, The Washington Post and The New York Times both reported Saturday evening. They worry Kim's concession will create an "illusion" of cooperation without making all the changes — including total denuclearization, which many experts consider to be an unrealistic aim — the administration hopes to secure in upcoming Trump-Kim talks.
"The reality is that North Korea has nuclear weapons, and we have to deal with that reality," Toby Dalton, co-director of nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Post. "The gap between reality and what we're planning for is problematic," he argues, "as it creates expectations that can't be met in the summit process, and we're back to where we were." Bonnie Kristian
North Korea "no longer needs" to test nuclear weapons and missiles, leader Kim Jong Un said Saturday, and will shut down the site of the past six nuclear tests.
Kim cast the decision as a practical matter because Pyongyang has already achieved "the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons," but the announcement was hailed by many as an important gesture of goodwill in advance of Kim's upcoming meeting with President Trump. However, Kim gave no indication he is willing to surrender his current nuclear arsenal, which he views as a bulwark against forcible regime change.
The president responded to Kim's statement on Twitter:
North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World - big progress! Look forward to our Summit.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 20, 2018
A message from Kim Jong Un: “North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
Also will “Shut down a nuclear test site in the country’s Northern Side to prove the vow to suspend nuclear tests.” Progress being made for all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2018
North Korean diplomat Choe Kang Il traveled to Finland Sunday for negotiations with American and South Korean representatives, notably including former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens. The talks are seen as a preliminary step toward the direct meeting President Trump has said he will have with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this spring.
The South Korean foreign ministry compared the Finland negotiations to the indirect and secretive "Track 2" dialogue Pyongyang maintains with Washington. Choe declined to comment on his agenda. Bonnie Kristian
On Sunday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and other advisers to President Trump "argued that his surprise decision to agree to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was less impulsive than it appeared to U.S. allies and members of Congress," The Wall Street Journal reports, and suggested it "had been made in line with a broader strategy of combating the North Korean nuclear threat." On Friday, the Journal reported that Trump "interrupted a trio of South Korean officials" to agree to the meeting:
"Okay, okay," Mr. Trump said, cutting short the discussion. "Tell them I'll do it." The South Korean officials looked at each other as if in disbelief, according to a White House official with knowledge of the meeting, as Mr. Trump continued. He would become the first sitting U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader, if Mr. Kim was sincere and understood the terms. "Tell him yes," the president said. [The Wall Street Journal]
On Fox News Sunday, Pompeo said Trump had offered Kim "nothing" for the summit, and argued that while other presidents turned down invitations to meet with Kim and his late father, Kim Jong Il, Trump agreed from a position of unprecedented strength. "Never before have we had the North Koreans in a position where their economy was at such risk and where their leadership was under such pressure that they would begin conversations on the terms that Kim Jong Un has conceded to," Pompeo said, telling CBS's Face the Nation that even Trump's tweeted insults to Kim were based on intelligence briefings of how Kim "might react and how North Korea might respond."
"It is hard to differentiate the way Trump has treated Kim on Twitter ... from the way he mocks most adversaries, including the news media and political opponents," The Washington Post observes, adding that Pompeo "has built a bond with Trump in part by reliably praising the president in public." Peter Weber
President Trump accepting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's invitation to meet face to face is unprecedented — no sitting U.S. president has met with the leader of North Korea — and the big announcement was delivered in an unusual way: in the White House driveway, in the dark, by South Korean national security official Chung Eui-yong. It's a surprising turn of events, given that Trump and Kim have spent a year trading personal insults and threats of annihilation, but few people were probably more surprised than officials at the Defense Department and the State Department.
"Several Pentagon officials said shortly before the announcement that they had no knowledge of what the South Koreans planned to announce," The Associated Press reports. "And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, traveling in Africa, just hours before said the U.S. was 'a long ways' from direct talks." It's unclear if "the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations," Tillerson added, and the State Department had said earlier in the day that U.S. diplomats were ready to engage with North Korea in a preliminary round of talks to test Pyongyang's sincerity. Now they have until May to prepare for a summit between Trump and Kim.
It won't be easy to "assemble a team capable of supporting a historic summit of longtime adversaries and determine a viable engagement strategy," The Washington Post notes, especially since the U.S. point person on North Korea, special envoy Joseph Yun, retired in February and hasn't been replaced, there's not even a nominee for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and the nominated assistant secretary of state for East Asia is awaiting Senate confirmation. Plus, "the State Department has hemorrhaged Korean linguists and former negotiators," Douglas Paal, an Asia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells the Post. Pyongyang, meanwhile, "will send people with 30 years of experience. This is a real challenge." Peter Weber
The North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, indicated "North Korea is willing to have talks with the U.S., and the North agrees that inter-Korean relations and North Korea-U.S. relations should advance together," said a statement from South Korea's presidential administration Sunday. South Korean President Moon Jae-in "pointed out the urgency to hold dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. in order to fundamentally resolve the issues on the Korean Peninsula and to improve inter-Korean relations," the statement reported.
In a public statement earlier Sunday, however, the North Korean regime condemned the United States' latest round of sanctions against North Korea, announced Friday. "The two Koreas have cooperated together and the Olympics was held successfully," Pyongyang said via state-run media, "but the U.S. brought the threat of war to the Korean peninsula with large-scale new sanctions."
President Trump has repeatedly expressed an interest in direct negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. However, he frequently vacillates toward more aggressive rhetoric. On Friday, he suggested that if these sanctions fail, he will move on to an unspecified "Phase 2" which could be "rough" and "very unfortunate for the world." Bonnie Kristian
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Saturday he wants to "create an environment" conducive to talks between Seoul and Pyongyang, but that a "consensus is starting to build that there's also a need for talks between the United States and North Korea." In the absence of those negotiations, Moon seemed cautious about moving forward with unilateral conversations that could anger Washington, South Korea's most powerful ally.
He declined to formally accept the invitation to talks extended by Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while she visited the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this month. "Let's not get too far ahead," Moon said. "There are high expectations and our hearts seem to be getting impatient." Bonnie Kristian
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and others in the White House are growing frustrated at what they see as the Pentagon's reluctance to provide President Trump with plans to attack North Korea, The New York Times reports, citing officials. McMaster reportedly argues that for Trump's threats of "fire and fury" to be credible, he has to have military options, from a "bloody nose" strike to attempting to take out Pyongyang's entire nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon, the Times says, fears "giving the president too many options ... could increase the odds that he will act."
Tensions have bubbled up with the news that Trump dropped his nomination of Victor Cha to be ambassador to South Korea because, Cha says, he pushed hard against a military strike against North Korea. But they've been simmering for months, the Times reports:
When North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in July ... the National Security Council convened a conference call that included Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. After General McMaster left the room, Mr. Mattis and Mr. Tillerson continued to speak, not realizing that other participants were still on the line. The officials familiar with the matter overheard them complaining about a series of meetings that the National Security Council had set up to consider options for North Korea — signs, Mr. Tillerson said, that it was becoming overly aggressive. [The New York Times]
Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have argued forcefully and repeatedly for diplomacy, warning that there are "few, if any, military options that would not provoke retaliation from North Korea," the Times reports. Both men denied slow-walking military plans, and Mattis and Tillerson reportedly support the idea of a preventative strike as a useful deterrent and because "they continue to be confident that, despite their anxieties, cooler heads with eventually prevail." Read more at The New York Times. Peter Weber