Asia Pacific / Politics

U.S. weighs ‘fundamentally different’ approach to North Korea as two look to bridge gaps ahead of historic Trump-Kim summit

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the United States was ready to begin a “fundamentally different” process in working with North Korea to find an outcome that “benefits both countries” as top officials from the two sides worked furiously to bridge apparent gaps just hours ahead of a landmark meeting between leaders Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.

As both sides worked to finalize preparations for the unprecedented summit — the first-ever between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader — Pompeo told a televised news briefing that Washington was prepared to offer security assurances that would be “different, unique than what Americans have been willing to provide previously” if the country relinquishes its nuclear arsenal. He didn’t say how they would differ from the past.

Pompeo said the pre-summit talks were “moving quite rapidly” and that he believed “they will come to their logical conclusion even more quickly than we anticipated.”

“These discussions will set a framework for the hard work that will follow,” Pompeo said.

“In each of these countries there are only two people who can make decisions of this magnitude and those are the two people who will be sitting in the room tomorrow,” he added.

But Pompeo also said sanctions on the North would remain in place until it gave up its nukes.

“If diplomacy does not move in the right direction … those measures will increase,” he said.

“North Korea has previously confirmed to us its willingness to denuclearize and we are eager to see if those words prove sincere.”

In a statement released later Monday, the White House echoed Pompeo, saying the discussions “are ongoing and have moved more quickly than expected.”

It said the summit would begin at 9 a.m., and that, following an initial greeting, Trump and Kim will participate in a one-on-one meeting, with translators only, followed by an expanded bilateral meeting and a working lunch.

Pool reports had earlier quoted U.S. officials as saying that the Kim-Trump one-one-one talks, which they called a “get to know you plus” meeting, could last up to two hours.

The U.S. delegation for the bilateral meeting was scheduled to include Pompeo, White House chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton while press secretary Sarah Sanders, National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Matt Pottinger and Ambassador Sung Kim, who led the policy meetings with North Korean officials earlier Monday, were to join the working lunch.

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s summit, Trump was to hold a news conference before departing for the U.S. around 8 p.m.

Speaking during a meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong on Monday afternoon, Trump said the summit with Kim would work out “very nicely.”

“We’ve got a very interesting meeting in particular tomorrow, and I just think it’s going to work out very nicely,” Trump was quoted as saying.

U.S. and North Korean officials, meanwhile, engaged in 11th-hour negotiations at the Ritz Carlton hotel Monday morning and were scheduled to hold another round of talks later in the afternoon, reports said.

“The president and the entire U.S. team are looking forward to tomorrow’s summit,” Pompeo said in a statement earlier Monday. “We have had substantive and detailed meetings to date, including this morning with the North Koreans.”

The focus of those meetings, led on the U.S. side by Ambassador Sung Kim, the U.S. envoy to the Philippines, and by Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui on the North’s side, was unclear, but speculation has abounded that the two sides were working to hammer out an agreement ahead of the summit.

Former U.S. officials voiced caution the last-minute talks were not surprising — or necessarily an ominous portent.

“Even joint statement negotiations with our normal partners can run into the very last moment, and the North Koreans certainly aren’t normal partners,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korean issues. “The North Koreans are very tough negotiators, and we are trying to make progress on difficult and complicated issues here. I would have been more suspicious if everything had been resolved by now.”

On Monday, North Korean state media also served up its first take on the summit’s agenda, with the official Korean Central News Agency saying that Kim and Trump will discuss “a permanent and durable peacekeeping mechanism on the Korean Peninsula,” as well as the denuclearization of the peninsula, normalizing bilateral ties and other “issues of mutual concern” at their meeting.

“Wide-ranging and profound views on the issue of establishing new DPRK-U.S. relations, the issue of building a permanent and durable peacekeeping mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, the issue of realizing the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and other issues of mutual concern, as required by the changed era, will be exchanged at the DPRK-U.S. summit talks,” KCNA said.

In the run-up to the summit, the North has rejected any push to have it unilaterally relinquish its nukes, and experts pointed out that the KCNA report’s reference to “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” has historically meant that the North would seek a reciprocal U.S. removal of its “nuclear umbrella,” or its policy of extended deterrence that protects Japan and South Korea.

In a twist, Pompeo tweeted Monday that the U.S. remains “committed to the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — an amalgamation of the North Koreans’ historical reference and the U.S. policy of the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of the North’s nuclear and missile programs.

“By combining CVI + DOTKP (denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula), the North can say that the only way that can be achieved is if, in extreme, the U.S. — and the entire world — disarms too,” Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT, told The Japan Times. “It’s the only way, they could claim, that the Korean Peninsula could verifiably and irreversibly be denuclearized. So that would obviously have implications for U.S. extended deterrence to Japan.”

The KCNA report also said that Kim had left Pyongyang via “a Chinese plane for his personal use,” and was accompanied by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, defense chief No Kwang Chol and sister Kim Yo Jong. Kim Yong Chol, the North Korean leader’s right-hand man, and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe were also included in the entourage.

The Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the mouthpiece of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, also devoted substantial attention to the summit, filling its first two pages with 16 photos and stories of Kim’s trip.

Oba, the former State Department official, said the KCNA dispatch made it “clear the North Koreans are laying the groundwork domestically for a potential warming of ties with the United States.”

“It is also remarkable that North Korean state media is running such a big spread on this before the summit happens,” Oba said. “That might be a sign the North Koreans are feeling confident about the summit.”

Oba said that Kim’s overall goal is to strengthen North Korea’s position, and by extension, bolster his own rule. “So we need to recognize how much a path toward normalization with the United States and others matters to Kim,” he said. “It’s not, as Washington seems to believe, about North Korea suddenly wanting to become rich.”

Trump and Kim arrived in Singapore on Sunday, both staying at luxurious and heavily guarded hotels, with Trump at the Shangri-La Hotel and Kim at the St. Regis Hotel.

Trump tweeted Monday morning: “Great to be in Singapore, excitement in the air!”

The U.S. president and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met over lunch Monday, just hours after Kim and Lee met the day before.

“The entire world is watching the historic summit between (North Korea) and the United States of America,” Kim told Lee through an interpreter at the meeting Sunday night.

Pompeo, the former CIA director who has twice met with Kim in Pyongyang, spent the morning huddled with top aides preparing for the summit. He was joined in Singapore by Sung Kim and Ambassador Michael McKinley, a career diplomat Pompeo recently tapped to be his senior adviser.

Trump on Sunday called the unprecedented summit a “one-time shot” at peace, but the president has also hinted that ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons would be a “process” that could take years.

Also Monday, Trump held telephone talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Abe told Trump that he hoped for a successful summit, saying such a move would be a good first step toward peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

Abe also said the three nations were in “complete agreement” over their basic stance on the summit, adding that he and Trump had reconfirmed that the U.S. leader will raise the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s at the meeting.

Earlier, Moon said that a single summit would not be the end-all for the North Korean nuclear crisis, and that the denuclearization process could extend for years.

“The deep-rooted hostile relationship and the North Korean nuclear issue cannot be resolved in one single action in a meeting between leaders,” Moon was quoted as saying at a weekly meeting with top aides. “Even after the two leaders open the dialogue, we will need a long process that may take one year, two years or even longer to completely resolve the issues.”

Besides denuclearization, formally ending the Korean War — 65 years after hostilities ceased with the signing of an armistice — was also expected to be on the table at the summit.

The talks come after a year of surging tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals that saw Kim ramp up the development of his weapons programs as the two leaders traded a series of pointed personal barbs — as well as threats of war — at one another.

Last year the North carried out what was by far its most powerful nuclear test to date and launched a flurry of missiles — including two over Japan — while Trump threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury” and Kim dubbed him a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

Trump landed in the evening after a long flight from Canada and the Group of Seven meeting there, telling Singaporean officials who welcomed him that he was feeling “very good” about the summit.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump spent his flight from Canada to Singapore “meeting with his staff, reading materials and preparing for his meetings in Singapore.”

The result of the meeting will have huge implications for Trump — and millions of people across the globe.

But critics have warned that it risks being largely light on substance considering the apparent gap between the U.S. and the North on the denuclearization issue.

Still, Trump insisted last week that the summit would “not be just a photo op,” saying it would help craft a “good relationship” that would lead to a “process” that could result in the “ultimate making of a deal.”

But, prior to leaving Canada, the mercurial president again changed his tune, calling it a “one-time shot” and adding that he would know “within the first minute” of meeting Kim whether an agreement will be possible.

“If I think it won’t happen, I’m not going to waste my time,” he said.

The U.S. president has also dangled the prospect of inviting Kim to Washington if the meeting is a success, an enticement that was likely to come up again at the summit.

The United States and North Korea have been in a technical state of war for decades after the outbreak of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which pitted U.S.-led U.N. troops backing Seoul against Pyongyang’s forces that were aided by China. The conflict ended in an armistice that sealed the division of the peninsula. The U.S. currently has some 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

Last year, the North made one of the biggest breakthroughs in its missile and nuclear weapons programs — which it says it needs to defend against the risk of a U.S. invasion — when it announced that it had “completed” its state nuclear program after testing a missile capable of striking most, if not all, of the continental U.S.

But in April, Kim announced a shift from a focus on building his nuclear arsenal to one of bolstering his tattered economy. As a part of that process, he also announced a suspension of nuclear and missile tests and the dismantlement of a key atomic testing facility that was carried out last month.

Trump and other top U.S. officials have promised a “bright future” for the North if it quickly relinquishes its nuclear weapons — including economic inducements and a security agreement. But it remains unclear if Kim will part with what he likely views as his most important bargaining chip any time soon.