President Donald Trump will try to revive his push to strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons when he hosts South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday. The visit comes as lawmakers worry about Kim Jong Un’s arsenal, with experts encouraging talks in hopes of even a “small deal.”
Trump’s second nuclear disarmament summit was cut short in late February after he and Kim reached an impasse over several issues, including the latter’s demand for some sanctions to be lifted before he started dismantling his atomic arms and long-range missile programs. Trump has signaled he was at least partially distracted during the meetings in Vietnam by his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s testimony before a House panel at the same time.
Since then, the U.S. president has only committed to staff-level talks with Pyongyang — but not a third summit with Kim. The North Korean leader has also been in talks with Moon about myriad issues between their countries, making the South Korean president a key go-between for Kim and Trump.
Despite his stalled disarmament push, Trump said it should be viewed as a victory that he and Kim have met twice and allegedly agreed on some terms of a possible deal. He even used that to attack one of the Democrats he could face in 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I just don’t see him as a threat. He’s been there a long time. His record is not good. He’d have to run on the Obama failed record,” Trump told reporters last week. “You look at what happened with so many different things [under President Barack Obama]: North Korea, the Middle East, the economy never got going.”
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Making a deal
Lawmakers from both parties give Trump credit for talking with Kim, especially given the high stakes of a conflict on the peninsula.
“Any outbreak of kinetic conflict would involve enormous destruction,” Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher said during a recent House Armed Services subcommittee hearing.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, raised concerns during a Senate Armed Services subpanel meeting last week about North Korea’s attempts to develop a missile it could fire from a submarine. Such an effort could allow its military to move undetected toward the continental United States, King said.
“So that changes this calculation again. If they’re launching their missiles from North Korea, that’s one thing,” he said. “If they’re launching them from the Bering Strait or somewhere in the … North Pacific, that’s a different … problem.”
William Burns, a former senior U.S. diplomat under Republican and Democratic presidents, urged Trump to pursue a “modest” deal with Pyongyang.
“Now that North Korean President Kim Jong Un has rejected Donald Trump’s offer to go big and agree to immediate, full denuclearization, the U.S. president has a choice to make: double down or embrace the art of the possible,” Burns said. “Despite the overtures, Mr. Kim remains convinced that nuclear weapons guarantee his security, stature and survival. Full denuclearization remains an important aspiration, but the more practical challenge is to reduce nuclear danger now.”
Any such shift by Trump would likely get Moon’s approval, another expert said.
“The Moon administration appears to be holding out hope that a small deal can be made with North Korea, one that would eventually lead to a big deal,” said Lisa Collins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Moon government has a clear goal to achieve peace and reconciliation with North Korea and is willing to spend an enormous amount of political, economic and diplomatic currency to reach that objective.”
One problem with such an approach: Going small is not the style of the onetime New York real estate mogul. Trump typically talks of any deal his administration is trying to reach with another country or group of countries as potentially “the biggest” in history.
And there’s another major hurdle, according to Collins.
“The problem is that even a small deal is not likely at this point between the United States and North Korea because they cannot agree on how to mutually proceed with the core problem of denuclearization,” she said.