- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2018

A meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un could be the diplomatic breakthrough of the century, but high-level U.S. sources, including two with experience in direct talks with Pyongyang, say huge doubts remain over the veracity of North Korea’s reported offer to discuss abandoning its nuclear arsenal and to halt all weapons tests while such discussions play out.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty and skepticism right now,” Joseph R. DeTrani, a former CIA official who served as special envoy to talks with Pyongyang before they broke down in 2009, told The Washington Times on Sunday.

He noted that, despite South Korean assurances that Mr. Kim made the offer in a private meeting with them last week, the North Korean leader has not commented on the matter publicly.

While North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations has reportedly confirmed the sincerity of Mr. Kim’s offer, four days have passed since Mr. Trump said he would accept a direct meeting with the North Korean leader and there has been no mention of the situation by officials in Pyongyang or by North Korea’s state-controlled Korean Central News Agency.

It’s a radio silence that prompted some uncomfortable moments over the weekend for administration officials defending Mr. Trump’s announcement that he believes a meeting could happen by the end of May.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo was guarded Sunday when asked whether Pyongyang has responded to the president’s announcement privately — or whether there is any direct communication between the administration and the Kim government.

“I don’t want to get into the conversations that may or may not be taking place,” Mr. Pompeo told CBS News.

“The president has indicated he is prepared to go have an initial discussion on this incredibly important topic, and we are preparing for that time,” he said in comments that seemed aimed at tamping down concerns that the diplomatic momentum could be quickly derailed should Mr. Kim suddenly issue a statement contradicting South Korea’s claim about his willingness to discuss denuclearization with Mr. Trump.

‘Uncharted waters’

With that as a backdrop, Mr. DeTrani told The Times that Washington is “in uncharted waters with Kim Jong-un right now.”

“There needs to be much greater clarity on what he means,” the former envoy said. “The South Korean delegation that met with him said the North Koreans indicated they’re prepared to talk denuclearization if they’re given certain security assurances.”

“Well, what are they?” Mr. DeTrani said. “Define it. Is it a peace treaty? Is it ultimately dialogue toward normalization with the United States? Is it the removal of American troops from South Korea? What do you mean, Kim Jong-un, when you speak about ‘security assurances’?”

Mr. DeTrani made the comments after another former official with direct experience negotiating with Pyongyang sharply criticized Mr. Trump for racing into the idea of a face-to-face meeting without demanding a definitive statement from Pyongyang clarifying its position on denuclearization.

Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, who served from 2005 into 2009 as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs when President George W. Bush’s diplomacy efforts with North Korea failed, warned Saturday that the administration has “already made a major concession.”

While Mr. Trump has said he won’t meet Mr. Kim if the North Korean leader conducts any more missile tests, Mr. Hill said the president should have a much harder posture.

A moratorium on testing is “a nice thing,” Mr. Hill told MSNBC, “but when you send your president into a situation like this, you should be looking for something a lot more. You should be looking for North Korea to fulfill its obligation to denuclearize, an obligation it made in 2005.”

Mr. Hill made the assessment after the conservative-leaning National Review magazine published an editorial criticizing Mr. Trump on Friday for engaging in “stunning improvisatory diplomacy” toward the “very bad idea” of a direct meeting with Mr. Kim.

“What has Kim done to deserve this honor? Over the last nine months or so, he murdered Otto Warmbier, threatened Guam and launched multiple missile tests, including two that flew over Japan,” the editorial said.

The magazine added that the North Korean leader has offered only “hazy assurances he is willing to discuss denuclearization” in a move “straight from the regime’s playbook” of buying time to get sanctions relief, while “continuing to pursue its core strategic goal of developing nuclear weapons.”

‘No additional conditions’

But Mr. Trump said Saturday that he believes the overall North Korea issue “is going very well,” noting via Twitter that Pyongyang has not conducted a missile test since November and expressing optimism about the prospects of a direct meeting.

Other administration officials asserted Sunday that Mr. Trump is completely clear-eyed about the situation.

“The president has been very clear in what the objective is here, and that is to get rid of nuclear weapons on the [Korean] Peninsula,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told NBC, adding that he finds it amusing that Mr. Trump “has been criticized over the last year for being too aggressive.”

“Now we have a situation where the president is using diplomacy, but we’re not removing the maximum pressure campaign. That’s the big difference here,” Mr. Mnuchin said. “The sanctions are staying on, the defense posture is staying the same as it is, so the president is going to sit down and see if he can cut a deal.”

Deputy White House spokesman Raj Shah told ABC on Sunday that the administration will impose no additional conditions on North Korea in order for the Trump-Kim meeting to occur, beyond stipulating that Pyongyang carry out no more missile or nuclear tests and refrain from publicly objecting to “U.S.-South Korea planned military exercises.”

Mr. Shah credited increased economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations, and pushed by Washington, with helping to bring the Kim regime to the brink of negotiations.

“Our policy is pressure, is pressure from our partners and allies around the world, pressure to the United Nations, pressure through China, these have had an impact,” he said. “It’s impacted Kim Jong-un’s behavior. It’s impacted his conduct.”

While many Republicans and some Democrats have openly credited Mr. Trump with success in ratcheting up pressure on Pyongyang while keeping the door open for talks, administration critics and some members of Congress worry that Mr. Trump acted too impulsively in agreeing to meet with Mr. Kim.

Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and a frequent Trump critic, told NBC on Sunday that “the important thing is the diplomatic work that has to go in before such a meeting.”

“A meeting like that would be kind of an afterthought after things are negotiated,” said Mr. Flake. “Here it looks as if, you know, that’s kind of the opening gambit, and that’s a little worrisome.”

Others were more harsh.

“This is a Hail Mary pass by Donald Trump,” said Srinivasan Sitaraman, a political science professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, who went so far over the weekend as to argue that the president may be using the issue as a “Wag the Dog” tactic to divert media attention away from accusations relating to pornography star Stormy Daniels.

Mr. Trump might very well play into the hands of the North Koreans,” Mr. Sitaraman said. “Trump is validating Kim Jong-un and providing a platform for him to be treated as an equal, something North Korea has sought all along. However, such validation is no guarantee that this will lead to reduced tensions in the peninsula or result in denuclearization.”

Military drills loom

Others say the impending resumption of joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, which were postponed during the Winter Olympics in South Korea last month, could be the first major tests to the durability of the diplomatic push.

The drills are traditionally held each year in April and always draw threatening criticism from Pyongyang. But no official announcement has been made on when they will take place this year.

In an interview en route to the Middle East over the weekend, Defense Secretary James Mattis declined to discuss the timing and scale of the exercises.

According to The Associated Press, Mr. Mattis refused to talk at all about the diplomatic push over North Korea’s nuclear program beyond saying, “When you get in a position like this, the potential for misunderstanding remains very high.”

The defense secretary was among the tight circle of Trump advisers at the White House on Thursday when Mr. Trump announced his willingness to accept Mr. Kim’s reported offer to meet in late May. The offer was relayed by a South Korean delegation that briefed the president on their own meeting with Mr. Kim last week in Pyongyang.

While there still has been no public confirmation of the offer from Pyongyang, The Washington Post reported Friday that it had received an email from Pak Song-iI, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York, saying the invitation was the result of Mr. Kim’s “broad minded and resolute decision” to contribute to peace and security of the Korean Peninsula.

Dave Boyer contributed to this article.

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