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Trump, Kim DMZ Summit Changed Little, Experts Say

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The sudden summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arose out of their common desire for “perpetuating the illusion of denuclearization” even though their divergent definitions of denuclearization remain unchanged, said experts. 

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Monday hailed Sunday’s summit at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom, and reported the next step would be denuclearization talks with Washington, marking an about-face for Pyongyang. 

“The top leaders of the two countries agreed to keep in close touch in the future, too, and resume and push forward productive dialogues for making a new breakthrough in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and in the bilateral relations,” said KCNA.

Trump tweets invitation

After some very important meetings, including my meeting with President Xi of China, I will be leaving Japan for South Korea (with President Moon). While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2019

Trump, whose schedule in South Korea included a visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) tweeted an invitation to Kim on Friday, suggesting they meet at the border separating the two Koreas. Kim greeted Trump on Sunday and invited him to the North Korean side of the border. 

After crossing to the South Korean side of the DMZ, the two leaders spent an hour at Freedom House. Trump said at a press briefing with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that working-level talks with North Korea would resume within weeks. Talks between Trump and Kim stalled after their February summit in Hanoi. 

That Kim’s meeting with Trump received a positive reception, as did the promise of future talks with Washington, marks a dramatic turnaround from remarks made by Kim to his top generals in April. In his speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim said he would not meet with Trump again unless Washington changes its position by the end of the year. At the Hanoi summit held in February, the U.S. conditioned North Korea’s request for sanctions relief on Pyongyang taking steps toward full denuclearization.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry also echoed Kim in its statement posted on its website on May 24 saying,”Unless the United States puts aside the current method of calculation and comes forward with a new method of calculation, the DPRK-U.S. dialogue will never be resumed and by extension, the prospect for resolving the nuclear issue will be much gloomy.”

North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stand on the North Korean side in the Demilitarized Zone, June 30, 2019 at Panmunjom.

No change in U.S. position

Kim met Trump at the border even though Washington had made no public change to its position on how North Korea could obtain sanctions relief.

Kim shares a common interest with Trump in preserving the talks in order to perpetuate “the illusion of denuclearization” but for different reasons, according to Evans Revere, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

Revere said Kim is motivated to continue the denuclearization talks because they give him a cover under which he can build more weapons without having to face extreme measures from the U.S.

“For Kim, the goal is to keep the denuclearization illusion in play so that he can continue to build and deploy nukes and missiles, which he is doing,” said Revere. 

“For Trump, who is overseeing an increasingly chaotic, feckless, and failing foreign policy agenda, the point is to convince American voters that at least one thing is working” ahead of his campaign for re-election for the 2020 presidential election,” Revere continued.

Lot to gain by both sides

Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said both Kim and Trump had a lot to gain by meeting at the border. 

The North Korean leader “is reaping enormous gains from a relationship that bolsters Kim’s legitimacy and normalizes him as an international leader,” said Snyder. “Every Trump-Kim meeting distracts from Kim’s reputation for ruthlessness, demands for unquestioning political loyalty, and subjugation of his population, while taking North Korea one step closer to acceptance as a nuclear state.”

For Trump, the talks with Kim have political value by “maintaining the drama of the relationship with Kim as a foil,” said Snyder. “The relationship is valuable regardless of what it accomplishes because it keeps people interested in the plot line: Will Trump win over Kim to a big deal on denuclearization?”

Yet even as Trump and Kim speak of keeping the talks alive and extoll their “great relationship”, the official differences on denuclearization remain.

Revere said, “The reality, however, is that North Korea has not changed its position opposing the U.S. definition of denuclearization.” 

North Korea’s concept of denuclearization has been to remove the U.S. nuclear umbrella over the Korean Peninsula while the U.S. defines it as dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said, “For all the talks of great relationships, the word denuclearization’ was not spoken.” He continued, “And is not that the central point of diplomacy with North Korea? The U.S. and DPRK still do not have a common definition for denuclearization. So how can it happen?”

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