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[Editorial] Risky summit

Trump’s intention to meet Kim again does not bode well for North Korea’s denuclearization

US President Donald Trump’s latest expression of his intention to hold another meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un does not seem to bode well for the complete denuclearization of the North, which is crucial to building lasting peace on the peninsula.

“I would do it if I thought it was going to be helpful,” Trump said Tuesday in an interview with a US news outlet, referring to the possibility of an additional summit with Kim taking place. He went on to say that he had “a very good relationship” with Kim, so their next meeting “probably would be” helpful.

They have met three times since their first summit in Singapore in June 2018, where they made an ambiguous agreement to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Their subsequent meetings, however, failed to lead to substantial results as significant differences remained over the scope of steps to be taken by North Korea and sanctions relief and other concessions from the US.

Talk of yet another summit between Trump and Kim has gained traction since South Korean President Moon Jae-in said last week he would try to broker it before the US presidential election in November.

Former US national security adviser John Bolton said in a recent interview with a daily published in Seoul that Trump could meet with Kim if he believes a summit would help boost his reelection chances.

US State Department officials have reiterated that sanctions against the North will not be eased before the final, fully verified denuclearization of the recalcitrant regime is achieved.

But concerns have been raised that an additional summit between Trump and Kim before the upcoming US presidential election would lead to a half-baked deal to soften sanctions against Pyongyang in return for a partial scrapping of its nuclear weapons program.

Such a deal might be preceded by or come with the resumption of major inter-Korean economic projects, which the Moon administration has been pushing for to carry forward its agenda for reconciliation with the North.

Any agreement that stops short of ensuring the North’s complete denuclearization would continue to leave the South vulnerable to threats from the Kim regime and make it difficult to establish true peace on the peninsula.

Trump noted in the interview that the North has no delivery system at this point, commenting on the suspicion that the communist state is maintaining its nuclear weapons program. His remarks give the impression he does not care about Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal as long as it stops short of securing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the US mainland.

Trump’s mention of a possible additional summit with Kim came after North Korea repeatedly rejected any chance of dialogue with the US.

On Saturday, the North’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui issued a statement saying that it felt no need to sit down with the US, accusing the Trump administration of using talks between the two sides as “a tool for grappling with its political crisis.” Another North Korean Foreign Ministry official handling US affairs said Tuesday, “Explicitly speaking once again, we have no intention to sit face-to-face with the US.”

The reiterated rejection came just hours before the US top nuclear envoy, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, visited Seoul to hold discussions with officials here on ways to kick-start stalled talks with the North.

Pyongyang’s rhetoric can be seen as a call for Washington to come closer to terms it has set forth. Trump seemed to share this interpretation when he said in the interview, “I understand they want to meet and we would certainly do that.”

Some observers here say the North may test-fire a submarine-launched ballistic missile in a bid to get the US to make further concessions without its complete denuclearization, while avoiding a strong backlash from Washington, which could be triggered by another ICBM or nuclear weapons test. Trump may move to sit down with Kim at that point to clinch what he believes he can trumpet as a deal that has defused a severe security threat to people in the US mainland.

Pyongyang’s cunning tactics, and the possibility of Trump playing into them, risks putting South Korea’s security on a permanently insecure footing. Further heightening the risk is that the Moon government, preoccupied with its peace agenda detached from reality, is poised to embrace a dubious deal between Trump and Kim.
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