Trump Trades `Fire and Fury' for Diplomacy to Set Up Kim Meeting

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is methodically laying the groundwork for a landmark meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a sharp contrast to the haphazard process that has followed previous policy announcements.

The White House’s preparations, including an unannounced trip to Pyongyang a few weeks ago by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, indicate that the meeting is increasingly likely to occur by early June -- an ambitious timeline originally met with skepticism by many Korea experts and even some within the administration after Trump accepted Kim’s invitation last month.

The two sides are working out sticky details of timing and location for the meeting while cooling their rhetoric. A handful of countries are under consideration, including Sweden, Switzerland and in Southeast Asia, according to people familiar with the matter.

The president has meanwhile replaced threats to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea with far more conciliatory and diplomatic language toward the regime. For his part, Kim has not tested a nuclear weapon or ballistic missile since November.

“I look forward to meeting with Kim Jong Un. And hopefully that will be a success,’’ Trump said Tuesday during a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “I can say this: They do respect us. We are respectful of them.’’

Climbing Toward Summit

There remains considerable uncertainty and work to do ahead of a summit, and Trump has warned the meeting might yet be called off. It isn’t clear what the president hopes to win from Kim in their first meeting or what the North Korean dictator may demand from the U.S. Trump has said he expects the North to eventually surrender its nuclear arsenal, long a point of pride to Kim’s family and his only real deterrent against a military attack.

“If I don’t think it’s a meeting that’s going to be fruitful we won’t go,” Trump said at a news conference with Abe on Wednesday. “If the meeting when I’m there is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting.”

But Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang is “another sign that the administration is taking this seriously,’’ said Patrick Cronin, director of the Center for a New America Security’s Asia-Pacific security program.

“I’m impressed with what they’re doing,’’ he said. “You can never be sufficiently prepared, really, for the president of the United States meeting for the first time with a leader of a country that’s been essentially closed off.’’

Many challenges remain. Pompeo has been nominated to be secretary of State, but it is not certain the Senate will confirm him and the department he would lead has several key vacancies on the Korean Peninsula. Trump also has a new national security adviser, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, whose office is hemorrhaging staff.

Trump has an erratic history as a negotiator and many of his bold declarations of new policies have flamed out because of chaotic implementation or backlash from opponents. He had to issue three different versions of a travel ban involving several Muslim-majority nations last year after repeatedly running into legal challenges.

Why Hope Battles History as Trump, Kim Plan to Meet: QuickTake

He tweeted out a policy banning transgender people from serving in the military, only to retreat and order the Defense Department to study the issue. The president also floated new gun restrictions and a deal to protect young undocumented immigrants this year -- only to reverse course after backlashes from conservative voters.

He may also discard any script for the Kim summit laid out by his advisers, said Adam Mount, a senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists.

“On the U.S. side, it looks like there’s a headlong rush into talks,’’ he said. “The president has at times seemed naïve about what he can achieve.’’

Reassuring the Japanese

But this week’s meetings with Abe are an example of the White House’s preparations. Japan considers itself one of the countries most at risk from North Korean aggression and wants short- and medium-range missiles included in any disarmament agreement. Abe wants Trump to pressure Kim to provide information on Japanese citizens abducted by the regime years ago, a request the president readily agreed to on Tuesday.

Trump also gave his “blessing” to peace talks between North and South Korea, who technically remain at war 65 years after a cease-fire ended the Korean conflict, and praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for helping to pressure Kim’s regime into talks.

While few expect the summit itself will immediately lead to Kim giving up his nuclear program, it could be the start of a long process aimed at achieving denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

To that end, each side may come prepared with some symbolic offerings and concessions to put on the table as a goodwill gesture, said Michael Pillsbury, the director of the Center for Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute.

Trump’s decision to meet with Kim is itself a diplomatic victory for the North Korean leader, who will benefit from being seen as an equal with an American president. There is also the risk that Kim is buying time for his nuclear and missile programs to advance further.

Matt Pottinger, the Asia director for the National Security Council who is helping to coordinate planning for the summit, said Trump would not be duped.

“President Trump has a team of people working for him now who have extensive experience dealing with the North Korea menace,’’ Pottinger told reporters on Tuesday. “If there is any intention by the North to merely buy time for this program, there will be an unhappy result.’’

Kim Sets Stage

Kim is making his own preparations. He traveled to Beijing last March to consult with Xi and other Chinese leaders and will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom next week, the first trip south of the border by a North Korean leader.

The two leaders are expected to declare an end to military hostilities, according to the South Korean news service South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Wednesday, citing a senior presidential official. South Korea and the U.S. would consider a peace treaty if Kim completely gives up his nuclear ambitions, the official said.

“It’s clear that North Korea is saying all the right things to enable the summit with Trump to happen — both to Seoul and to Washington,’’ said Mount.

While the historic meeting appears closer to reality, the most critical work won’t happen until after it concludes, Cronin said. That’s when officials from both countries will engage in complex negotiations to translate terms like denuclearization and de-escalation into concrete actions.

One of the biggest obstacles will be persuading Kim to agree to inspections of his nuclear program and verification of any steps he takes to scale it back, Cronin said. Past talks with North Korea have broken down after the regime refused to allow international inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities.

That would be “the worst situation,” Cronin said, returning the U.S. “to the threat of kinetic action, and that creates a new regional crisis.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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