US-North Korea summit may be window dressing

Love was in the air last June when President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a historic meeting in Singapore.

A year earlier, it seemed the U.S. and its longtime archenemy were on the verge of war, with the use of nuclear weapons being openly discussed by both sides. It didn’t help that the two leaders exchanged personal insults that were amusing but also worrisome.

Then, Trump and Kim met in Singapore, and their embrace seemed to mark the beginning of a new era in U.S.-North Korean relations.

“We fell in love,” the president told a rally of his supporters last September. “He wrote me beautiful letters.”

Thus the question: Will the two men consummate that love with an ironclad agreement on “denuclearization” by North Korea and the lifting of economic sanctions by the U.S.? Or, will Trump and Kim continue to whisper sweet-nothings to each other, while the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula keeps U.S. ally South Korea on edge?

The reason for the two-day summit starting Wednesday is unclear.

The White House has called it “a tremendous opportunity” to address a monumental problem that has stumped generations of policymakers: persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

But as Foster Klug, the Associated Press’ bureau chief in South Korea who has reported on the Koreas since 2005, put it, foreign-policy experts don’t share the Trump administration’s enthusiasm for such a meeting.

“ ... [W]ith the stakes so high, a growing chorus of experts highlight a particular risk: that Trump, burned by criticism that the results of the June meeting with Kim in Singapore were vague at best and an outright failure at worst, will ignore his more cautious aides and try to strike a deal that’s cobbled together on the fly with little preparatory work,” the AP’s Klug wrote. “Why is this potentially dangerous? Because when it comes to North Korean nuclear diplomacy, all deals are not created equal.”

‘Treasured sword’

The Kim government has characterized the country’s nuclear arsenal a “treasured sword,” and a senior North Korean official said last year that dialogue between his country and the U.S. won’t continue “if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment.”

A senior U.S. official was asked at a recent press briefing if North Korea was negotiating in good faith. He replied: “I don’t know if North Korea has made the choice yet to denuclearize. But the reason why we’re engaged in this is because we believe there’s a possibility that North Korea can make the choice to fully denuclearize.”

And President Trump tweeted recently that he and Kim “both expect a continuation of the progress made at the first Summit in Singapore. Denuclearization?”

Given the absence of the major factors that go into setting the stage for such a crucial summit – the most important one is a clearly stated goal or outcome – speculation is rife as to why Trump is traveling to Vietnam.

Not surprisingly, high up on the list of reasons is domestic politics and the drip-drip of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. A key question is whether anyone in Trump’s campaign colluded with Russians to derail Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Trump has insisted there was no collusion and that he will be exonerated when Mueller releases a report on his findings to the attorney general. It isn’t known whether the report will be made public.

Another reason being cited for the Trump-Kim summit is the president’s re-election bid in 2020. He needs a major foreign-policy victory to convince his supporters that he has not abandoned his “America First” view.

Indeed, the president has sent shockwaves through South Korea with his rhetoric about the billions of dollars it costs the U.S. Treasury to defend that nation, which is in North Korea’s cross-hairs.

“South Korea – we defend them and lose a tremendous amount of money. Billions of dollars a year defending them.”

Trump has even talked about wanting to eventually bring home the 28,500 troops stationed in defending them.

The contrast between those musings and his expressions of love for the dictator Kim Jong Un prompts the question: What is the basis of Trump’s belief that North Korea will give up its nuclear arsenal in return for the lifting of economic sanctions?

It is to be hoped that he isn’t blinded by his love for Kim.

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