WASHINGTON — Redefining success, President Donald Trump headed to his second meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, determined to tamp down expectations that he’ll achieve big strides toward denuclearization. Yet he was still eager to claim an attention-grabbing victory to offset the political turmoil he faces at home.
President Trump is set to land in Vietnam late Tuesday and will have meetings with the host country’s president and prime minister Wednesday before sitting down later with Kim for a private dinner.
President Trump will be joined at the dinner by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, the White House said Monday. Kim also will have two aides with him, and there will be translators for both sides. President Trump and Kim, who arrived in Vietnam Tuesday, will have a series of official meetings Thursday.
President Trump laid out ultimate goals for both the U.S. and Kim in an appearance before the nation’s governors Monday before boarding Air Force One to fly to Vietnam: “We want denuclearization, and I think he’ll have a country that will set a lot of records for speed in terms of an economy.”
Worries abound across world capitals about what President Trump might be willing to give up in the name of a win, but there seems less mystery about his North Korean counterpart. Survival of the Kim regime is always the primary concern.
President Trump was the driving force behind this week’s summit, aiming to re-create the global spectacle of his first meeting with Kim last year. But that initial summit in Singapore yielded few concrete results, and the months that followed have produced little optimism about what will be achieved in the sequel.
President Trump is publicly unconcerned.
He once warned that North Korea’s arsenal posed such a threat to humanity that he might have no choice but to rain “fire and fury” on the nation. However, in the leadup to the new summit, he’s proclaimed himself in no hurry for Pyongyang to prove it is abandoning its weapons.
“I’m not in a rush. I don’t want to rush anybody, I just don’t want testing. As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy,” President Trump told the governors on Sunday.
In fact, he is ready to write himself into the history books before he and Kim even shake hands in Hanoi.
“If I were not elected president, you would have been in a war with North Korea,” President Trump said last week. “We now have a situation where the relationships are good — where there has been no nuclear testing, no missiles, no rockets.”
While President Trump was airborne, Kim’s armored train was on the move in China, bound toward Vietnam’s capital. Vietnamese officials promised security at “the maximum level.” Reporters from 40 nations were expected to transmit the story to the world.
Kim inherited a nascent nuclear program from his father, and after years of accelerated effort and fighting through crippling sanctions, he built an arsenal that demonstrated the potential to rocket a thermonuclear weapon to the mainland United States. That is the fundamental reason Washington now sits at the negotiating table.
Kim, his world standing elevated after receiving an audience with a U.S. president, has yet to show a convincing sign that he is willing to deal away an arsenal that might provide a stronger guarantee of survival than whatever security assurance the United States could provide. The North Koreans have largely eschewed staff-level talks, pushing for discussions between President Trump and Kim.
Though details of the summit remain closely held, the two leaders are expected to meet at some point one-on-one, joined only by translators.
The easing of tension between the two nations, President Trump and his allies contend, stems from the U.S. president’s own unorthodox and unpredictable style of diplomacy. Often prizing personal rapport over long-held strategic interests, President Trump has pointed to his budding relationship with the young and reclusive leader, frequently showing visitors to the Oval Office his flattering letters from Kim.
President Trump, who has long declared that North Korea represented the gravest foreign threat of his presidency, told reporters recently that his efforts to defang Pyongyang had moved Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize, something Abe would not confirm or deny.
Four main goals emerged from the first President Trump-Kim summit: establishing new relations between the nations, building a new peace on the entire Korean Peninsula, completing denuclearization of the peninsula and recovering U.S. POW/MIA remains from the Korean War.
While some remains have been returned to the United States, little has been achieved on the other points. Korean and American negotiators have not settled on either the parameters of denuclearization or a timetable for the removal of both Korean weapons and American sanctions.
“The key lessons of Singapore are that President Trump sees tremendous value in the imagery of diplomacy and wants to be seen as a bold leader, even if the substance of the diplomacy is far behind the pageantry,” said Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
U.S. intelligence officials testified before Congress last month that it remains unlikely Kim will fully dismantle his arsenal. And many voices in the President Trump administration, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, have expressed skepticism that North Korea would ever live up to a deal.
Mark Chinoy, senior fellow at U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, said that after generations of hostility, the convivial atmosphere of Singapore “can’t be discounted.” But Chinoy noted that President Trump had agreed to North Korean’s “formulation of ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,’ which Pyongyang has long made clear meant an end to the US security alliance with South Korea and an end to the U.S. nuclear umbrella intended to defend South Korea and Japan.”
After the last summit, President Trump unilaterally suspended some military drills with South Korea, alarming some in Seoul and at the Pentagon. But he was insistent this week that he would not draw down U.S. troops from South Korea. And American officials, even as they hint at a relaxed timetable for Pyongyang to account for its full arsenal, have continued to publicly insist they would not favor easing sanctions on North Korea until denuclearization is complete.
A year ago, North Korea suspended its nuclear and long-range missile tests and said it dismantled its nuclear testing ground, but those measures were not perceived as meaningful reductions. Experts believe Kim, who is enjoying warmer relations with South Korea and the easing of pressure from Russia and China, will seek a U.S. commitment for improved bilateral relations and partial sanctions relief while trying to minimize any concessions on his nuclear facilities and weapons.
“Kim is doing pretty well as it is,” said Scott Seaman of the Eurasia Group. “The threat of a U.S. military strike is essentially zero, Kim’s diplomatic charm offensive has made him into a bigger player on the world stage, and he continues to whittle away at international commitment to sanctions.”
The Hanoi summit comes at a politically uncertain time for President Trump.
His potential 2020 foes have begun unleashing attacks. The newly elected Democratic House has begun its investigations of the president, calling his former legal fixer, Michael Cohen, to appear before Congress while President Trump is in Vietnam. And special counsel Robert Mueller, who has investigated possible ties between President Trump’s campaign Russian election interference, may finalize his report within days of the president’s return to the United States.