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Second Kim-Trump summit could lay groundwork for arms control talks — and de facto nuclear state recognition

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

A second meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is being planned, the White House said Monday. Such a summit, some experts say, could help break the current impasse in denuclearization talks and lay the groundwork for what ultimately may be the only way forward: arms control measures and the recognition of Pyongyang as a de facto nuclear power.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told a televised news conference that Trump had received a “very warm, very positive letter” from Kim, the primary purpose of which was to ask for the second meeting, which she said the administration was open to and “in the process of coordinating.”

Asked if the possible meeting might take place in Washington this time, Sanders offered no concrete details and said that the White House would not release the full letter without Kim’s permission, but added that the talks are “certainly something that we want to take place” and that the administration will continue to work on making it happen.

Kim agreed at the landmark June summit in Singapore to a vaguely worded 1½-page joint statement to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” while Trump committed to “provide security guarantees” to the regime.

Sanders also touted what she said was Trump’s “tremendous success” on the nuclear issue, noting that the focus of a parade held Sunday marking the 70th anniversary of the North’s founding was “one of the first times … where they weren’t highlighting their nuclear arsenal.”

Pyongyang had used some recent military parades marking key anniversaries to display mock-ups of powerful new weapons systems, including long-range missiles believed capable of striking the continental United States.

“We consider that a sign of good faith,” Sanders said, adding that the letter “certainly showed a commitment to continuing conversations … and a continued commitment to focus on denuclearization of the peninsula.”

On Twitter, Trump said “experts” were heralding the absence of long-range missiles as a sign of the Kim regime’s “commitment to denuclearization.” He thanked Kim and called the move a “very positive statement.”

“We will both prove everyone wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other!”

Sanders’ and Trump’s comments, however, contrasted with a report published Monday citing U.S. intelligence saying that Kim’s regime has escalated efforts to conceal its nuclear activity.

Citing three senior U.S. officials, NBC News reported that in the three months since the Singapore summit, the North has been observed building structures to obscure the entrance to at least one warhead storage facility and moved warheads out of the facility.

The same report quoted three current and former senior U.S. officials as saying that intelligence estimates show the North could produce five to eight new nuclear weapons in 2018 — a pace virtually identical to their assessment of the regime’s production of about six per year prior to the Trump-Kim summit.

While it’s unclear how a Trump-Kim meeting could kick-start the stalled nuclear talks, speculation has grown that the U.S. president might offer up a declaration of the Korean War’s end in exchange for the Kim regime issuing a declaration of its nuclear and missile programs and assets.

Last week, Kim told South Korean officials visiting Pyongyang that he would “cooperate closely” with the U.S. — even possibly accepting “stronger” denuclearization measures if there is reciprocation for earlier moves taken by the North, including the dismantling of a missile engine test site and the destruction of a nuclear test facility.

Kim also said that he was concerned that the international community did not fully “understand his intentions” to denuclearize, and urged them to recognize the “goodwill” behind the earlier moves that he said demonstrated his commitment.

But while a second Trump-Kim summit could improve U.S.-North Korean bilateral ties and reduce the risk of a conflict, it would also further decimate the already weakened U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign meant to rein in the North’s nuclear program via tough sanctions and diplomatic isolation, said Zhao Tong, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

Pyongyang, Zhao said, could use the meeting to “consolidate its international image as a normal and reasonable member of the international community” — despite possessing nuclear weapons.

As for an end-of-war declaration, taking such a step would likely be seen as a signal that both parties are serious about moving discussions forward.

“It would represent the official end of decadeslong hostility and help pave the ground to begin building trust,” Zhao said.

“Such a declaration will help keep the current diplomatic momentum going and probably will lead to additional North Korea concessions about its nuclear and missile programs,” he added.

Still, before real trust is built — and the U.S.-North Korea relationship is transformed as the two parties committed to in the Singapore Declaration — future concessions are likely to take the shape of limiting and capping the North’s nuclear capabilities, rather than outright relinquishing their weapons.

“The unfortunate reality is that we may have to face a nuclear-capable North Korea for the foreseeable future,” Zhao said.

But a simultaneous or action-for-action approach that in the near-term lets the North keep its arsenal and effectively recognizes that it possesses nuclear arms in a manner similar to Pakistan, India and Israel, could pose grave risks to regional and global security.

“That’s what North Korea wants,” said Brad Glosserman, a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Tama University, and a regional security expert. “It wants these negotiations to grind out so long, that its status as a de facto nuclear state becomes essentially accepted in the world. That is one of its primary objectives, perhaps even more important than ending the (U.S.-South Korean) alliance.”

North Korea’s model, he said, is Pakistan, which conducted nuclear tests in May 1998, shortly after nuclear tests by India, declaring itself a nuclear weapon state. Pakistan currently possesses a growing nuclear arsenal, and remains outside both the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

For neighboring Japan, Glosserman said the future direction of the talks could pose a grave threat.

“If these become arms control and nonproliferation talks, rather than dismantlement and disarmament talks, then you have a very serious problem with Japanese support,” he said.

Tokyo has been one of the strongest backers of the pressure campaign, though it has adjusted its stance as the mercurial Trump has shifted his position.

But Glosserman believes there could be a breaking point in Japan’s alliance with the U.S. if pushed too far on the issue.

“Are they going to go nuclear? No. But are they going to be very worried about U.S. commitments? Yes.” he said.