(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear to be on a collision course over what comes first: Disarmament or sanctions relief.
On Sunday, two of Trump’s top national security officials -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton -- both said the U.S. needs proof that North Korea’s denuclearization is complete, verifiable, and irreversible before sanctions are lifted. By contrast, Kim has called for a step-by-step process to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.
Bridging that gap is crucial for a successful outcome when Trump and Kim meet in Singapore on June 12. Trump has insisted he won’t repeat the mistakes of the past, when agreements for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons broke down due to disputes over inspections and the delivery of economic aid.
“If the North Koreans are genuine and allow these intrusive inspections, then it works,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “If the North Koreans aren’t -- and the chances are very high that they are not -- then the summit fails.”
Trump last year pressured the United Nations Security Council to cut off most of North Korea’s exports and curb fuel imports to stop Kim from pursuing the capability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres credited the sanctions for bringing North Korea to the table, saying in an interview last week they put a “straightjacket” on Kim’s regime.
Still, so far there’s little indication that Kim will give up his weapons all at once without getting anything in return. State-run media has repeatedly chided the U.S. for saying North Korea must give up its weapons completely for sanctions relief, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying this month the U.S. was “deliberately provoking” the country.
In a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this month, Kim called for the U.S. and North Korea to build trust through “phased and synchronous measures” that would lead to a political settlement “and eventually achieve denuclearization.”
Trump’s team is looking at a much faster timeline. Bolton has often cited the Libya model, which involved Muammar Qaddafi shipping its nuclear weapons out of the country within a relatively short time period.
On Sunday, Bolton told CNN that Trump wants North Korea to get rid of “all aspects of their nuclear program,” including ballistic missiles, as well as its chemical and biological weapons.
“It’s an ambitious program,” Bolton said. “And that’s why it’s important to test whether, in fact, North Korea has made a strategic decision to give up weapons of mass destruction.”
Pompeo, who met with Kim extensively on two trips to Pyongyang in recent months, separately told CBS that the U.S. won’t give North Korea “a bunch of money” only to have nothing to show for it.
Still, Pompeo’s comments in a separate interview with Fox News Sunday spurred questions about whether the U.S. would accept a deal that simply prevents North Korea from being able to hit the American homeland with a nuclear bomb.
“Make no mistake about it: America’s interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into LA or Denver or into the very place we’re sitting here this morning,” Pompeo said.
The demand for complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization is “wildly different” from getting rid of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to Van Jackson, a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington who is writing a book on North Korea.
“It means that Kim can pick and choose which form of a deal he wants and Trump will market it as a win,” Jackson said. “If it ends up harming allies -- especially Japan -- but it saves the U.S. homeland, it is going to be a win for Trump.”
Kim has already been successful at shifting the narrative over his nuclear program. His move to prioritize economic growth has ended the imminent threat of war, and his summits with Xi and South Korean President Moon Jae-in produced pledges of economic cooperation from both leaders.
“Barring a catastrophic error by Kim, what he has created with his first summits makes it impossible to return to the maximum pressure policy,” Joseph DeThomas, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation, wrote last week for 38 North.
Pompeo’s comments on Sunday raising the prospect of American private investors entering North Korea also make it more difficult for Trump to keep pressuring Kim in any negotiation, according to Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“The Americans have a real problem here because they have raised expectations about the summit, and they continue to do so,” he said. “What they should be doing is playing down expectations by saying ‘we need to be cautious with the North Koreans’ and really hold their feet to the fire and make sure that any agreement is fully verified.”
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