Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Trump now says 'no time limit' to denuclearize North Korea as reality of challenge sets in

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump has turned talk of a quick resolution to the denuclearization of North Korea on its head, saying Tuesday that there is “no time limit” for Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.

“Discussions are ongoing and they’re going very, very well,” Trump said in Washington.

“We have no time limit. We have no speed limit. … We’re just going through the process. But the relationships are very good,” Trump said in Washington after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Trump said he and Putin had discussed the issue and that the Russian leader “is going to be involved in the sense that he is with us.”

The mercurial U.S. president met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore for a landmark summit June 12 that saw Kim agree in a vague joint statement to “work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump pledged to provide security guarantees for the North.

However, the 1½-page statement bypassed crucial details about how and when North Korea would proceed with its denuclearization pledge.

The White House hailed the Kim-Trump summit as a major breakthrough in the effort to disarm the nuclear-armed North in exchange for the easing of sanctions and other help with economic development.

Trump had even declared almost immediately following the summit that the North Korean nuclear threat had ended. But more than a month later, no concrete progress has been reported and North Korea has complained that the U.S. is making unilateral “gangster-like” demands.

In the run-up to the Singapore summit, the White House had taken a hard line, saying denuclearization should start “without delay,” and after the meeting, it spoke of the process beginning “very quickly.”

Just one day after the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been the point man for much of the negotiations with the North, suggested that the bulk of its denuclearization should be completed by the end of Trump’s term in 2021.

Meanwhile, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, even suggested earlier this month that the U.S. has a plan that would lead to the dismantling of all of the North’s weapons of mass destruction and associated programs in just a year.

All the while, Pyongyang has reportedly continued apace with its nuclear program, taking steps to boost its nuclear fuel production at multiple secret sites in recent months and build more powerful missiles that put the U.S. at risk as it positions itself to wring every concession it can out of the Trump administration while still clinging to its nuclear weapons, which it sees as crucial to its survival.

Now, Trump appears to have come to a realization that there will be no easy fix for the intractable denuclearization issue, which has confounded several of his predecessors.

Just last week, he even saw fit to unveil a letter from Kim in which the young leader hailed the negotiating process as the “start of a meaningful journey.”

And on Tuesday, he attempted to shift focus away from the broader denuclearization issue to tout the relative calm after last year’s pace of missile and nuclear tests and heated rhetoric that took the U.S. and the North to the brink of war.

“The sanctions are remaining. The hostages are back. There have been no tests. There have been no rockets going up for a period of nine months. And I think the relationships are very good. So we’ll see how that goes,” he said.

Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia, said Trump’s recent remarks had essentially confirmed two things.

“Firstly, that the Trump administration has no coherent plan or strategy for addressing the North Korean nuclear issue and the associated threat of an emerging operational intercontinental ballistic missile; and secondly, that Trump has no intention of expending any political capital in dealing with this policy challenge,” he said.

Trump may also be looking to shift the issue to the back burner ahead of midterm elections in November to avoid any questions over his failure to deliver any demonstrable progress on denuclearization.

“He may have underestimated the long-term intractability of the issue, but equally Trump may also feel that meeting with Kim Jong Un has already ticked a box in his self-modeled ‘deal/peace maker’ profile, and that he’ll continue to do what every president before has done in the past: i.e. kick the can down the road some more,” O’Neil said.

“As long as the North Korea’s refrain from testing, they can probably count on Washington doing very little under the current administration to counter the country’s nuclear and missile programs,” he added.

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