After months of exchanging insults, the leaders finally agreed to hold talks concerning North Korea's nuclear-weapons program and other issues. The occasion was historic, as no U.S. president had met in person with North Korea's head of state since the Korean war ended in 1953. Crafting an agreement appeared to be a daunting challenge due to sharp disagreements; there were fears that failure to reach a compromise could worsen relations between the two countries.
The United States insists on full denuclearization by North Korea, a demand that the Asian nation has refused to accept. However, Pyongyang's government-controlled news agency declared Sunday that Kim was willing to discuss disarming, as well as securing a “durable peace.” Trump said the summit would give Kim a “one-time shot” to engage in a pact with the United States. The president expressed hope that his adversary would “want to do something great for his people.”
Tensions have escalated during the past year, in part because of a series of North Korean ballistic-missile tests. When Kim boasted that he had the capability of striking the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon, Trump responded by threatening to unleash “fire and fury.” The president has derided Kim as the “little rocket man”, while the North Korean leader questioned Trump's sanity.
Some observers are skeptical that the two outspoken officials can strike an accord. Trump claims no one is better than him at making deals, but he admitted to having done minimal studying for the summit. He said negotiating with Kim was a matter of “attitude” rather than preparation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the United States “has been fooled before” when dealing with North Korea, but argued that the two countries now have “sufficient trust in each other” to cooperate.
“Many presidents previously have signed off on pieces of paper, only to find that the North Koreans either didn't promise what we thought they had or actually reneged on their promises,” Pompeo said. “We'll each have to ensure that we do the things, take the actions necessary, to follow through on those commitments. When we do, we'll have a verified deal, and if we can get that far we will have a historic change”.
One of Kim's top priorities for the summit was to persuade Trump to relax the economic sanctions that he had imposed on North Korea. If nothing else, the meeting gave the dictator an opportunity to boost his status by appearing on the world stage as the leader of a nuclear power. Trump hoped to not only prevent a military confrontation, but also to give his administration a foreign-policy victory. That could help Republican congressional candidates in this year's mid-term elections, and give the president a boost if he runs for a second term in 2020. There have been suggestions that Trump might even win the Nobel Peace Prize if he ends the threat posed by North Korea.
Kim, in a gesture apparently intended to show his willingness to negotiate, recently released three U.S. hostages. He also shut down a nuclear weapons testing facility, but his critics say that he did so only because no further tests were needed. Few believe that Kim is open to full denuclearization. “My own sense is that he would only be ready to (disarm) at the end of a very long process, and that his goal at the present time is to remain a de facto nuclear power while reducing the sense of worry and threat about that so he can begin to develop the economy,” said Kathleen Stephens, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea. “I do think he is very serious about wanting to make North Korea a more normal country, looking more like its neighbors, more like a successful Asian economy.”
Other analysts predicted that Kim might make some concessions concerning nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees and U.S. investment in his country. He might balk at allowing international inspectors into North Korea to assure compliance with an agreement. However, former State Department official Evans Revere said that “the North Koreans, for various reasons, are closer to being willing to freeze or even give up their program than they have ever been, and that is not a bad thing.”
On the eve of the summit, Trump downplayed expectations. “We're not going to go in and sign something on June 12, and we never were. We're going to start a process,” he said. Though normalization of relations between the two countries still looks like a distant goal, Trump has floated the possibility of inviting Kim to the United States, as well as rumors that the president might visit Pyongyang.