WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump prepares to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday in Singapore in a historic face-to-face summit, foreign policy analysts say the president should tamp down his expectations for what can be accomplished.
The president — who had abruptly called off the talks before saying they were back on — has said his goal in meeting with Kim is to broker the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a feat that had eluded his predecessors. As Trump looks to strike a new accord, foreign analysts say past high-level meetings with the Kim regime illustrate the challenges he will face in achieving his objective.
Trump has already witnessed the unpredictable nature of negotiating with the North Koreans. Last month, in a gesture of goodwill leading up to the then-tentative summit in Singapore, North Korea released three American detainees — only to follow up days later with a series of hostile statements aimed at the Trump administration. Those statements prompted the president to cancel the summit meeting and send a strongly worded letter to Kim.
“The one thing to keep in mind is we’ve had this conversation with the North Koreans before,” said Julian Ku, a professor at Hofstra Law School who specializes in U.S. foreign policy. “We’ve had these negotiations — not with the presidents themselves, but we’ve had these high-level negotiations, and it’s failed each time for a variety of reasons, mostly because the North Koreans didn’t feel like they had to actually live up to their end.”
So, Ku continued, “You have to be ready for that to happen.”
North Korea, with the aid of the Soviet Union, started to develop its nuclear program in earnest in the 1980s, opening its first nuclear power plant in 1986 about 60 miles north of the capital city, Pyongyang, in what is now known as the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. By 1994, the country threatened to reconfigure the plant to enrich enough plutonium for up to six nuclear warheads, prompting President Bill Clinton to consider a military strike against the plant.
Clinton opted to negotiate with North Korea, dispatching former President Jimmy Carter to hold talks with leader Kim Jong Il, the father of the current North Korean leader. In October 1994, both countries signed off on a deal known as the Agreed Framework that required North Korea to freeze and dismantle its nuclear facilities in exchange for economic relief from the U.S., including fuel shipments.
Despite the agreement, four years later, North Korea would test a long-range missile, prompting the United States to demand the country suspend all of its weapons testing. Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state at the time, visited Pyongyang in early 2000, looking to expand upon the Agreed Framework and lay the groundwork for a possible visit by Clinton before his second term was set to expire. But those talks were unsuccessful, with Kim Jong Il refusing to give concrete assurances that he would stop all missile testing.
Albright, speaking to CNN in May 2017, cautioned Trump — who often describes himself as a “dealmaker” — against treating a meeting with Kim Jong Un like a board room meeting.
“I think that part of the issue is that President Trump seems to believe that he can have just one-on-one relationships, and maybe that’s possible in business, but that is not something that is possible as president of the United States,” Albright said. “This is not a matter of charming somebody by saying you’re ‘honored’ and he’s a ‘smart cookie.’ ”
As President George W. Bush took office in 2001, the Agreed Framework came to an end, as the Bush administration pushed for a more hard-line approach against North Korea. Diplomatic talks with Pyongyang were shelved as Bush, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, described North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” alongside Iran and Iraq.
Efforts to contain North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal were revived in 2003, when China hosted denuclearization talks among the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and North Korea, known as the “six-party talks.” Pyongyang continued to balk at requests to abandon its nuclear weapons program, conducting a series of nuclear missile tests during the ongoing discussions. By 2009, the talks collapsed as the Kim Jong Il regime refused to give international inspectors access to visit the country’s nuclear sites.
Bush’s former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Trump, who has gone from deriding Kim Jong Un on Twitter as “Little Rocket Man” to recently praising him as “honorable,” should keep in mind he is dealing with a “brutal” and “secretive” regime.
“Take it one step at a time. It’s fine to talk about a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula. . . . But go step by step, make sure there’s good verification of everything the North Koreans are doing, and keep your eye on the prize of denuclearization. Because what we want to do is stop them short of threatening the American homeland,” Rice said in a May 1 interview with CBS News. “And finally, remember the nature of this regime.”
The Obama administration tried to draw North Korea to the negotiating table by ratcheting up economic sanctions, adopting what White House officials at the time described as “strategic patience.” But the North continued to develop its nuclear weapons program and conduct missile tests.
As a presidential candidate, Trump issued fiery warnings to Kim, saying he would “get China to make it disappear in one form or another very quickly,” and would support neighboring Japan in developing its nuclear weapons program.
Trump intensified his digs once in office, threatening to direct “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” at the isolated state. But he has since toned down his rhetoric following his announcement in March that he had accepted an invitation to meet with Kim face to face. The meeting, if held, would be the first such meeting between a sitting U.S. president and the Kim regime.
Though Trump pushed for a one-day summit, he has since acknowledged that the complexity of the talks on hand may require more than just one meeting.
“I’d like to see it done in one meeting. But often times that’s not the way deals work,” Trump told reporters on May 31 as he traveled to Texas for a pair of campaign fundraisers. “There’s a very good chance that it won’t be done in one meeting or two meetings or three meetings. But it’ll get done at some point.”
Jeffrey Fields, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, said Trump’s unconventional diplomatic style may “work to his advantage,” given Kim’s similarly unpredictable temperament.
“Donald Trump is not like normal presidents. He’s a maverick and will do what he wants. He is not constrained by Republican Party ideology, so this may work to his advantage,” Fields said. “Kim Jong Un is a lot like Trump because he’s bold and engaging in personal diplomacy. But we’re in uncharted territory when it come to complete denuclearization. American exceptionalism — the assumption we can demand what we want and it will be done — will be put to the test.”
Fields, a former analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense, said as Trump prepares to negotiate face to face with Kim, “managing expectations will be key.”
“If the United States demands denuclearization without big concessions, not much will happen,” Fields said.
Joel Wit, senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who played a role in crafting the 1994 Agreed Framework, said Trump should recognize that most of the senior North Korean officials handling negotiations for the summit have decades of experience in dealing with the United States.
“These people really know the United States, they understand the United States . . . ” Wit said in a recent conference call with reporters. “They have their own national interests in mind all the time, and I’m sure they’re the ones behind the planning for this summit. So, it’s a cautionary note that you can’t just send some intelligence analysts off to meet with North Koreans and think that that’s going to work well.”