As the historic US-North Korea summit draws closer, two major concerns are rising with regards to US President Donald Trump. One is about the softening of his stance on quick, complete denuclearization of the North, and the other is about the alignment of his “America First” policy with the nuclear crisis.
For now, it seems the two sides have yet to narrow their differences over how the North should denuclearize. Senior Trump aides mention a “bumpy road” (Secretary of Defense James Mattis) and “difficult challenge” (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), indicating that there is still a gap with the North.
But one obvious thing is that Trump is easing up on his position on quick, complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear capability. The change in his position was detected after he withdrew his cancellation of the summit, citing the North’s positive reaction to his abrupt decision to call off the meeting.
The softening of Trump’s rhetoric was more palpable after he received North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s special envoy at the White House last week.
Trump said after meeting Kim Yong-chol that he and the North Korean leader were “not going to sign something” at their June 12 meeting in Singapore and that they were going to “start a process.”
He also said “it would not go in one meeting” and that he told the North Korean side that they could take their time. “We can go fast. We can go slowly. But I think they’d like to see something happen,” Trump said.
These remarks make one believe that the US president has set his sights lower than in the past. In other words, he would not seek a complete denuclearization deal with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, only laying the basis for further talks -- between the two leaders and between their aides.
His mentioning of a process several times could mean that he could accept phased denuclearization as insisted on by the North Korean leader.
Furthermore, Kim made it clear again that denuclearization should be a phased process when he met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Pyongyang last week.
Apparent signs of appeasement on the part of Trump were also manifested in his comments on sanctions on the North. Emerging from his meeting with the North Korean envoy, Trump said that he would not use the words “maximum pressure” any more and would hold off on additional sanctions against Pyongyang while talks are underway.
“America First” approach
It also is a big concern that Trump is trying to apply his “America First” policy to the case of North Korea whenever and wherever it is possible. He does not want to spend US taxpayers’ money on denuclearization and economic rewards to be given to the North, leaving the financial burden to other countries.
After meeting Kim Yong-chol, Trump said that the US was “not going to spend” and that neighboring countries -- South Korea, Japan and China -- should be ready to shoulder the costs.
It was not first time that Trump had raised the money issue in his usual selfish manner. After canceling the meeting with Kim Jong-un, Trump, while warning of a military action against the North, said that the financial burden, even for any US military operation, should be shared by allies.
“Likewise, I have spoken to South Korea and Japan and they are not only ready should foolish or reckless acts be taken by North Korea, but they are willing to shoulder much of the cost of any financial burden -- any of the costs associated by the United States in operations, if such an unfortunate situation is forced upon us,” he said.
It is inevitable for the US to be the main player in the nuclear crisis. But that does not mean that its leader can do whatever he likes -- lowering the bar for denuclearization, easing sanctions and making premature calculations about money needed for a deal. That would mean he is following in the footsteps of the past US administrations he has harshly rebuked for giving the North more time to develop its nuclear weapons program.