The U.S. and North Korea struck a cheery tone in the hours before Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are expected to meet for the first-ever summit between sitting leaders of those two countries, one that has raised the prospect of Pyongyang abandoning a decades-long nuclear weapons program.
“I just think it’s going to work out very nicely,” Mr. Trump said in Singapore, where he has arrived ahead of Tuesday meetings with Mr. Kim, who spent Monday in a luxury hotel less than 600 metres away from where Mr. Trump is staying, South Korean media noted.
North Korea’s central news agency proclaimed a “changed era,” and promised talks on “the issue of building a permanent and durable peace-keeping mechanism on the Korean peninsula” as well as “the issue of realizing the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Ahead of the leaders’ meeting, officials from both countries spent hours behind closed doors Monday, in preparatory talks that are “in fact moving quite rapidly, and we anticipate they will come to their logical conclusion even more quickly than we had anticipated,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday afternoon in Singapore.
Foreign policy experts in South Korea and the U.S. have long warned that Mr. Kim seeks acceptance for his nuclear program, and will be unwilling to destroy the weapons – and sense of security – he and his predecessors have spent decades working to build.
But the mutual exchange of niceties served to further bolster expectations that the meetings will mark a historic pivot point away from the furious rhetoric and nuclear-backed mutual threats that have made Pyongyang the centre of one of the world’s most dangerous potential flashpoints.
Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump intend to meet first on Tuesday, accompanied only by interpreters – an unusual move that will provide the two leaders a chance to interact directly without advisers. But in chatting alone, without the accompaniment of those who might record commitments made, it also underscored the risks of an informal approach to setting policy between two countries with a lengthy history of mistrust.
Indeed, the specifics of language remain one of the central questions hanging over the summit, including the definition of “denuclearization,” a term both countries have used. The U.S. wants Pyongyang to submit to complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (known as CVID), while North Korea has long spoken about denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula, a phrasing that typically denotes the U.S. removing nuclear and other military protections from South Korea, a key ally.
The U.S. is willing to offer Mr. Kim “security assurances that are different – unique – than [what] have been provided” in the past, Mr. Pompeo said. He declined to say whether that could include the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea.
He added, however, that the Singapore meeting will make only partial progress. “We are hopeful this summit will have set the conditions for future productive talks,” he said, including setting “the framework for the hard work that will follow.”
Mr. Trump has cast himself as a deft and capable personal negotiator.
“Within the first minute I’ll know” how things will go, he said this weekend. “Just my touch, my feel, that’s what I do.”
The countdown to the summit has elicited an optimism that is striking, particularly compared with the fears of potential nuclear-armed conflict that had coursed through the Korean peninsula only last year.
“History will judge this summit very kindly if it launches a process that ends in the normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations – in the process capping and bringing North Korean nuclear weapons and programs under international observation,” said Christopher Green, an expert on North Korea with Brussels-based International Crisis Group. If that happens, it stands to set in motion events whereby “North Korea slowly opens up fully to the world, changing the structure of East Asian relations for good.” (North Korea officially calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK.)
Mr. Kim’s late April meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in was similarly preceded by high hopes, only to produce a declaration that offered very few concrete details.
In Singapore, too, even the most detailed of summit agreements cannot predict whether such hopes will be achieved, given the long history of North Korean deals that subsequently disintegrated amidst mutual recriminations of bad faith.
But North Korea has already achieved a great deal, by showing itself to be a rational counterparty willing to make change, such as the apparent destruction of its nuclear test facility and a halt to its nuclear and missile tests, said Phill Hynes, head of political risk and analysis for Hong King-based Intelligent Security Solutions Ltd.
“If the summit ends in failure, North Korea walks away more secure as they are being viewed more moderately due to their actions,” he said. If the U.S. were to then resume a threatening posture, it is the White House that will be “perceived as the antagonists,” he said.
“The North wins either way out of this summit. As for the U.S., Trump’s not negotiating a real estate deal in Manhattan here.”
But the stakes are high, too, for North Korea, said Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Institute for International Strategic Studies at the Central Party School of Communist Party of China.
“CVID is the only way that North Korea can win back the trust of other countries on its determination to give up its nuclear ambitions. So it has to be realized,” Prof. Zhang said.
The U.S. has already pressed for tough economic sanctions against North Korea, and has threatened even harsher measures if Pyongyang does not genuinely commit to ridding itself of nuclear weapons.
But the outlook is promising, said Su Hao, a diplomacy scholar at China Foreign Affairs University. He believes an agreement on complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization “will undoubtedly be announced” on Tuesday.
“Both sides share similarities in what they want,” he said. “North Korea has realized that it has to step on the road of denuclearization, and that this is in their own best interest.”
For Mr. Trump, meanwhile, “this would definitely be the most important diplomatic achievement in his term as president. He won’t easily let it slip from his fingers.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li