The Irish Times view on the Trump-Kim summit: Lowering expectations

Is North Korea serious about giving up its nuclear programme?

US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met for their one-on-one chat during the second US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.

 

US president Donald Trump has sought to dampen expectations ahead of his meeting with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Vietnam this week.

The president said he was “not in a rush” to force Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal and said he was “happy” as long as Pyongyang was not testing weapons. It was a welcome note of realism and a sign, perhaps, that the White House knows it over-sold the last summit between the two men, in Singapore last year.

That encounter produced a lot of striking imagery but not much in the way of solid commitments on either side.

Since the current period of détente began early last year, North Korea has freed US prisoners and paused its testing but, apart from a vague joint pledge to work towards “the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” – a formulation that Pyongyang sees as encompassing the removal of the US “nuclear shield” over South Korea – Kim has given little ground.

Trump made comparatively big concessions by suspending military exercises and broaching the idea of a peace treaty to formally end the Korean war.

The Singapore summit was itself a concession; previous US administrations had refused to bestow that status on North Korean leaders in the absence of meaningful steps on the nuclear programme.

The Americans appear to be better prepared for this summit. A respected negotiator, Steve Biegun, has been leading the preparatory work, and the expectation is that the two sides will agree to new gestures – the opening of liaison offices in each other’s countries or a peace declaration to officially end the war, perhaps.

Looming over the process is a big unanswered question: is North Korea serious about giving up its programme? Trump’s own intelligence chiefs told the US Congress last month that they thought it was “unlikely” that Kim would give up his weapons because his regime needed them for its survival.

Given those doubts, it’s vital that the Americans give no ground on economic sanctions, which remain the strongest leverage the international community has on the regime.

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