Trump gambles on North Korean deal

Trump gambles on North Korean deal

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Donald Trump appears to have gone out on a limb when he decided to accept an invitation to attend a summit with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator.

“That is a decision the president took himself,” said Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, who was on tour in Africa when Mr Trump decided to take personal charge of a nuclear crisis that no previous US administration has been able to resolve.

For a quarter of a century, Washington has sought to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions through a combination of diplomacy, tough talk and sanctions. Despite it all, Mr Kim has taken the country’s nuclear and missile programmes to new and dangerous heights.

Mr Trump is betting that he can end that record of failure through a face-to-face meeting with the North Korean leader. 

“President Trump has made his reputation on making deals,” said a senior administration official following the announcement on Thursday evening, adding that a summit made sense because only Mr Kim could make decisions on behalf of his regime. 

But even champions of the planned summit say the peace effort could backfire.

“There is deep distrust on both sides and . . . rushing into talks is a recipe for failure,” said a person with close ties to senior North Korean officials, warning of the danger of “pushing too hard and too fast”.

The risks are considerable, since both men have their fingers on nuclear buttons. Tension ran dangerously high just a few months ago and the men have traded bitter insults, with Mr Trump labelling Mr Kim a “maniac” and the North Korean leader dubbing the US president a “dotard”.

Even if Mr Kim is seeking a comprehensive and durable solution, North Korea is unlikely to take swift steps to implement de-nuclearisation, as the regime sees its nuclear weapons programme as an insurance plan for regime survival.

“They are not going to move immediately to agree on de-nuclearisation, as they are still very nervous that they’ll be left out in the cold, without any recourse, if they give up the only ‘protection’ they have, as they see it,” said the person close to North Korean officials.

People watch a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US president Donald Trump at a rail station in Seoul © AP

But Mr Trump and his most senior officials have all said de-nuclearisation is the sole aim of any talks, raising the prospect of swift disappointment.

IT is also far from clear whether the US is prepared to deliver Mr Kim the kind of security guarantees he is likely to demand in exchange for giving up his prized nuclear programme. 

“We need to be cautious as many obstacles still remain,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Only when the US commits to the security of the regime and halts the military threat, including joint military drills, will North Korea move ahead with de-nuclearisation.”

Relations with Seoul are also delicate. A senior administration official told the Financial Times on the eve of Mr Trump’s decision that the US might not necessarily inform its South Korean ally should it choose to conduct a pre-emptive strike. 

“It depends on the situation,” said the official, warning that the US might not have time to inform its ally. “At what point does North Korea roll out a missile that appears to or could potentially threaten the US or its allies? [When] do we have to consider a pre-emptive strike?” 

The official also highlighted North Korea’s record of “deception”, its threats against the US military base on the island of Guam and its belligerent record on the Korean peninsula over seven decades.

But the person with close ties to North Korean officials maintains a breakthrough is possible if expectations can be lowered in the short term.

“If the process is managed well — quietly, carefully and patiently — we could see a genuine deal that leads to de-nuclearisation and lasting peace on the peninsula,” the person said. “The North is not playing the same games they have played in the past. This is real.”

Additional reporting by Bryan Harris

Milestone meeting follows decades of disappointment

1953 Korean war ends. With the help of the Soviet Union, its key benefactor, North Korea tentatively begins training nuclear scientists and engineers.

1980-85 North Korea begins construction of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.

1991 US withdraws nuclear weapons from South Korea.

1994 The Agreed Framework: Washington and Pyongyang sign a deal in which North Korea agrees to freeze its plutonium weapons programme in exchange for aid, including two proliferation-proof nuclear power reactors.

2002 Agreement collapses amid growing hostility between Pyongyang and Washington. President George W Bush includes North Korea in “Axis of Evil” speech. US intelligence suggests North Korea is pursuing uranium enrichment.

2005 Breakthrough following Six-Party talks between the US, the two Koreas, China, Russia and Japan: Pyongyang pledges to abandon nuclear weapons.

2006 North Korea tests its first nuclear device.

2009 Diplomacy breaks down as the international community struggles to verify whether North Korea is fulfilling pledges to denuclearise. Pyongyang condemned for launching long-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missile.

2011 Kim Jong Un is declared North Korean supreme leader after the death of his father Kim Jong Il.

2017 North Korea tests three intercontinental ballistic missiles and a powerful nuclear device.

2018 The Koreas appear poised for negotiations following Winter Olympics rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Follow on Twitter: @KatrinaManson


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