A man reads a copy of the Munhwa Ilbo newspaper featuring U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the front page in Seoul, South Korea. (Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg)

Trump's Early North Korea Wins Face Ultimate Test in Kim Talks

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump has already outdone his predecessors on North Korea by pulling together a global coalition to tighten sanctions, winning the release of three U.S. prisoners and arranging for a summit with Kim Jong Un.

Now the measure of success is no longer merely having a meeting but what results in Singapore on June 12. And there Trump is gambling he’ll be able to set the adversaries on a path toward dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program, the likes of which has eluded U.S. presidents for decades.

Trump's Early North Korea Wins Face Ultimate Test in Kim Talks

But it’s an enormous risk for a president who has shown a knack for walking away from deals like the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement but little acumen at putting new ones together. Pulling off a real deal with North Korea will require attributes Trump hasn’t shown -- ruthless preparation, extreme caution and skepticism, an eye for detail.

And he’ll have to rely on advisers with scant experience dealing with North Korean leaders, many of whom played a central role in past denuclearization agreements that came to nothing.

“Here’s the worry I have: Trump doesn’t listen to anybody, and he’s going to have to change because this is the most momentous event in his presidency,” said Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who negotiated many times with North Korea. “There’s got to be real preparation and strategy. The president has to listen to his people about what we should achieve and what Plan B is if we don’t achieve total denuclearization -- which we’re not.”

Trump scored an important victory on Wednesday when North Korea agreed to release the three American prisoners, a move that his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called an important gesture of good will before a meeting. Hours later, Trump announced the meeting date and time on Twitter Thursday with his usual relish for superlatives, writing, “We will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace.”

Now, however, Trump enters a month-long period where he must set expectations for what he’ll really be able to achieve.

Trump's Early North Korea Wins Face Ultimate Test in Kim Talks

So far, U.S. officials have sought mostly to spell out what the summit won’t be. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made clear the U.S. team won’t accede to a phased lifting of the international sanctions that they believe forced Kim to the table. They want North Korea to make the first moves toward giving up its entire nuclear arsenal, which Kim dramatically expanded and strengthened since Trump became president.

“We are not going to head back down the path that we headed down before,” Pompeo told reporters Tuesday on the way to Pyongyang, where he discussed details of the leaders’ meeting and secured the release of the detained Americans. “We’re not going to relieve sanctions until such time as we achieved our objectives. We are not going to do this in small increments, where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure.”

Trump agreed in March to meet with Kim in an apparent spur-of-the-moment decision, against the advice of senior advisers. They had argued Kim stood to gain the most from a meeting, and the U.S. first needed to make sure his promise to give up his weapons was genuine.

Upending Diplomacy

Next month’s summit will be complicated -- and the risks particularly great -- because Trump is upending decades of diplomatic practice. Past precedent would have dictated that teams of lower-level staff hammered out the details of an agreement over weeks, perhaps months, of talks, with the leaders of the two countries coming in at the end to close the deal.

This time, Trump is going in at the very beginning, before any of that hard spadework has taken place. The hope is that the goodwill and trust established in the first meeting between the two leaders will provide sufficient momentum for the two sides to work out the details.

But those details are daunting, to say the least. Ensuring that North Korea lives up to its commitment to give up its nuclear weapons will be far more difficult than it sounds, given that it would probably require the sort of onerous and highly invasive inspection regime -- with access to previously secret sites -- that North Korea has resisted in the past.

On top of that, Trump’s team has few experts who have actually met or spoken to a North Korean official. Those that have, such as Mark Lambert, the director for Korea policy at the State Department, were excluded from Pompeo’s secret trip to Pyongyang this week.

Outside experts have been extremely skeptical of what Trump can achieve at the meeting given the number of times in the past that North Korea has promised to freeze its missile programs or give up its nuclear weapons only to renege on those agreements.

‘Discouraging’ Record

“There are measurable, meaningful things that North Korea could do, but nothing that the North Koreans have offered or promised or said to date can give us confidence particularly in light of their discouraging track record,” said Danny Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, who’s now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Particularly worrisome for Trump, according to Russel, is that Kim has managed to sow division among the countries dealing with North Korea -- China, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Russia -- by meeting individually with leaders including the presidents of South Korea and China.

“Six months ago, the five countries stood shoulder-to-shoulder and stood in lockstep,” Russel said. “Now it’s as if we each had a paddle at an auction, and he’s getting each of us to bid against each other for access to his time and favor.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.