Trump, Kim Agree on Denuclearization, Disagree on What That Means

North Korea says it has a long-term vision of global denuclearization, and it’s unclear whether the country will surrender its weapons in the short term…

Trump Cancels Summit with North Korea

Kim Jong Un & Donald Trump/PHOTOS: KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/File / Mandel NGAN

(Noah Bierman and Matt Stiles, Tribune Washington Bureau) President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un say they have the same ambitious goal — denuclearization of the Korean peninsula — at their upcoming summit in Singapore.

But the two leaders fundamentally disagree about what that looks like.

The dispute over the shape, scope and speed of a potential disarmament has stymied international efforts to halt or roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program for three decades. It arguably poses the biggest obstacle to a successful summit now that the historic meeting is back on track for June 12.

Reconciling or finessing that gap — and determining what the secretive police state would get in return for handing over or dismantling its devastating nuclear arsenal — could make the difference between a deal or no deal after the formal haggling starts.

“The common mistake is to assume when the North Koreans talk about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, they’re talking about giving up all their weapons,” said Victor Cha, who headed Asian affairs in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and who took part in nuclear talks with North Korea at the time.

“It’s not really the way we look at it, which is ‘Crate it up and take it out,’” said Cha, who now heads the Korea program at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Rather, he said, North Koreans view denuclearization as a long-term aspiration, the way Americans talk of someday abolishing nuclear weapons from the globe. North Korea has a long list of other grievances, and could demand the removal of U.S. troops, or even the U.S. nuclear umbrella, from South Korea.

“It’s an endless list,” said Michael Green, another veteran of Bush-era negotiations with North Korea. “They will keep adding to the list of things we have to do in order for them to denuclearize until the cows come home.”

Most experts say Pyongyang wants to be recognized as a full-fledged nuclear power with the weapons it has, but with global obligations, much as then-isolated Communist China’s nuclear arms program ultimately was accepted after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.

The broad parameters of a potential pact are well-established: The U.S. side wants North Korea to give up the estimated 20 to 60 nuclear weapons that it has built, as well as the massive infrastructure that created them, and presumably the ballistic missiles that can hurl them across the Pacific.

In exchange, Trump can offer U.S. security guarantees for the despotic regime in Pyongyang, better relations with Washington and its allies in Japan and South Korea, and easing of international economic sanctions that have strangled North Korea’s ability to trade with the outside world. Trump has signaled that he won’t offer a U.S. financial aid package, though he has suggested he would solicit Asian allies to do so.

Whether that’s enough — or whether North Korea is really prepared to give up a vast weapons program that has consumed much of the impoverished country’s energy and resources for decades — remains to be seen.

Many former U.S. negotiators with North Korea are deeply skeptical of how much its leaders will relinquish, and whether they would allow the intrusive inspections needed to ensure the program isn’t being secretly restarted — as North Korea has done in the past.

As part of the recent thaw, Pyongyang announced a halt to further nuclear tests — it previously conducted six — and last week blew up the entrances to its test site at Punggye-ri. It didn’t allow international inspectors in to determine whether the damage is reversible, however, and it could always lift its freeze.

For now, the two sides have yet to define denuclearization, a strategic ambiguity that could provide negotiating room or doom the diplomacy altogether.

©2018 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.