The Irish Times view on US-North Korea relations: advantage Pyongyang

In his dealings with Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump has conceded a great deal without getting all that much in return

US president Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un at their summit in Singapore last June. Photograph: Kevin Lim/ EPA

US president Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un at their summit in Singapore last June. Photograph: Kevin Lim/ EPA

 

Donald Trump appears to be lowering expectations in advance of his meeting in Vietnam later this month with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. That’s wise, because while all the signs point to the summit being a strategic victory, that victory will almost certainly be Kim’s. In his State of the Union speech this week, Trump made no mention of his earlier claim that the nuclear threat from Pyongyang had passed. Indeed, the word denuclearisation did not merit a mention. Nor did he say what he intends to achieve from his follow-up to the two leaders’ meeting in Singapore last June.

Trump earned some domestic credit, opinion polls suggest, for becoming the first US president to meet a North Korean leader. But while it’s clearly preferable that Washington and Pyongyang are talking rather than exchanging threats, Trump has so far conceded a great deal without getting all that much in return. Kim has returned several US prisoners, paused nuclear and long-range missile testing and suggested he is willing to dismantle some nuclear facilities. Yet as recently as last week, US intelligence leaders said they saw no evidence that Pyongyang had any intention of giving up its nuclear arsenal.

Why would it? From Pyongyang’s perspective, those weapons have delivered Kim the propaganda coup of a face-to-face summit with the US president along with the postponement of joint US-South Korean military drills and the prospect of a scaling back of the US military presence on the peninsula – a long-cherished aim of the Kim dynasty. The dictator has shrewdly worked simultanously to improve ties with China and South Korea – both of which have already suggested sanctions against the North should be eased.

The US special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, reportedly flew to Pyongyang this week to work on logistics for the summit. But there is no sign of any substantive work having been done in advance, making a breakthrough in Vietnam unlikely. IF the summit turns out to be another photo-op followed by a vaguely worded non-binding declaration, that will suit Kim nicely.

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