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Trump: 'I've been preparing all my life' for North Korea summit

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before leaving the White House for the G-7 summit on June 8, 2018. (CNN Newsource)

President Donald Trump expressed confidence Friday that he is fully prepared for his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but with only days to go until the historic event, Democrats and experts still have reservations about his negotiating strategy.

“I always believe in preparation, but I've been preparing all my life,” Trump told reporters outside the White House on Friday morning before leaving for the G7 summit in Canada. He is scheduled to leave there on Saturday morning to travel to Singapore, where he is set to meet with Kim Tuesday to discuss shutting down the reclusive regime’s nuclear weapons program.

Trump’s comments echoed the sentiment he expressed at a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Thursday.

“I’m very well prepared,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done. But I think I’ve been preparing for this summit for a long time, as has the other side.”

Some North Korea experts were disturbed by the notion that negotiating a resolution to a decades-long standoff over nuclear weapons in the hands of a hostile regime is more about “attitude” than preparation.

“Language around nuclear weapons negotiations can be very specific and you don’t want to lock yourself into any commitments or statements inadvertently,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “That’s why previous presidents and diplomats prepared very carefully for meetings such as these.”

Bell, who previously worked on arms control issues at the State Department, stressed that this meeting is unlike the business deals Trump has negotiated in the past, and the consequences of the summit going badly could be disastrous. Typically, a president would work closely with advisers to understand the technical issues involved and drill down on exactly what his position is.

“The normal process is to have those briefings, to have sort a ‘murder-board’ type approach, to present the possibly frenetic pace of the conversation, making sure we don’t get tripped up on talking points,” she said.

Politico reported Thursday that such high-level meetings have been sparse in advance of this trip. Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Treasury Department official, dismissed concerns that this leaves Trump at a disadvantage in negotiations.

“This is an issue he’s been focused on his entire presidency…,” he said. “This emphasis on the reporting about lack of formal meetings or whatever, there’s various ways to brief the president and get him ready for the summit.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Thursday that Trump is ready to face Kim.

“So over months and months, days and days, President Trump has been receiving briefings on this issue about the military aspects of it; the commercial, economic aspects of it; the history of the relationship,” he said at a press briefing. “And in the past few months, there have been near-daily briefings, including today, where we have been providing the President all the information that he needs.”

Trump has seemed to temper expectations for progress at the summit lately, emphasizing that this crisis will not be resolved in a single day and there will have to be more talks to come.

“I think we’re going to have a great success,” Trump said Thursday. “I don’t think it will be in one meeting. I think it will take longer than that. This has been going on for many, many decades.”

Tom Collina, policy director for Ploughshares Fund, welcomed the apparent lowering of the bar to a realistic and achievable level.

“The expectations became sky high mainly because of people who wanted the summit to fail,” he said.

“Instead of a big bang theory of negotiations where the North Koreans give up everything before we give anything…now we are seeing phased implementation and the word process was used over and over again,” said former Ambassador Robert Gallucci at a briefing hosted by the Center for a New American Security Friday.

Ruggiero interpreted Trump’s talk of a “process” differently, and he does not see the president’s stance as opening the door to phased denuclearization.

“It sounds like a process is more of, hey, this might be the first meeting and we might have to move away from this outreach and back to maximum pressure and then back to negotiating,” he said.

Though Trump is no longer publicly speculating about receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, his suggestion Thursday that he might invite Kim to the White House if the meeting goes well may have notched expectations up again.

“You couldn’t talk about bigger rewards for what the North Koreans have been wanting for decades,” said Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador and a professor at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

In interviews this week, Democrats have maintained a sense of cautious optimism for the summit while questioning what a seemingly unprepared and undisciplined president can accomplish.

“I worry about a naïve president, doesn’t read memos, going to a summit with one of the most brutal dictators in the world with very vague goals,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., recalled North Korea has backed out of negotiations and reneged on agreements in the past.

“You’ve got to remember their definition of denuclearization is different from ours,” she said. “My fear is that the president wants a deal so bad that he may be willing to trade away things that aren’t in our interests and also aren’t in the interest of our allies.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., remained skeptical of Kim’s sincerity, but he said even an agreement to denuclearize would only be the beginning of a longer process that will require “an enormous diplomatic effort” to implement and verify.

“I anticipate there’ll be some kind of statement of principles involving determination to explore a path toward elimination of nuclear weapons on the peninsula,” Merkley said. “That is just the start of a conversation.”

While Pompeo acknowledged some differences persist, he said Thursday Kim indicated to him in their meetings that he is willing to disarm.

“He has indicated to me, personally, that he is prepared to denuclearize; that he understands that the current model doesn’t work, that he’s prepared to denuclearize,” he said. “And that, too, he understands that we can’t do it the way we’ve done it before — that this has to be big and bold, and we have to agree to making major changes.”

If that is true, the question becomes what, if anything, Trump is willing to offer Kim in return.

“Neither side is going to be able to get everything they want, but both sides should have in mind where they’re comfortable giving something,” Bell said.

The two parties have very different goals. The U.S. wants North Korea to denuclearize completely, verifiably, and irreversibly. Kim Jong Un wants relief from economic sanctions, access to the global economy, and a guarantee of regime security.

“The president needs to know what he’s willing to agree to and what he’s not willing to agree to,” Collina said.

Trump and Kim will also have to work to bridge the gap of distrust between their countries if they want to proceed toward peace. There are steps North Korea can take in the short-term, such as making a firm commitment to keep offline the nuclear and ballistic missile programs it has temporarily halted, to build confidence, but Kim will expect Trump to prove his sincerity too.

“I think President Trump has set this up for success. He has realistic expectations. He has achievable things he can get done,” Collina said—but with Trump at the table, he added, anything can happen.

In recent weeks, Trump has scaled down military exercises and delayed some planned economic sanctions, but he maintained Thursday that the U.S. and its allies are still applying “maximum pressure,” even if he has stopped calling it that.

“We don’t use the term anymore because we’re going into a friendly negotiation,” he said. “Perhaps after that negotiation I will be using it again. You’ll know how well we do in the negotiation. If you hear me saying we’re going to use ‘maximum pressure,’ you’ll know the negotiation did not do well, frankly.”

According to Ruggiero, that is all Trump should be willing to give up at this point.

“Those are not huge concessions, but they are concessions… It’s the North Koreans who need to come in and be ready to make the ultimate concession,” he said.

Taking North Korea at its word has backfired on the U.S. before, so ensuring any commitments Kim makes are followed by concrete actions will be key to establishing a relationship.

“It seems the administration has been very clear,” Ruggiero said. “Last week and again this week, Pompeo has drawn a line and said it’s Kim that has to make a strategic decision to denuclearize and if they do, there’s a better path for them, a more secure path, but if they don’t, there’s a darker path for them.”

It may prove difficult to immediately judge the ultimate success or failure of the summit. As Trump has said, further negotiations will be necessary to hammer out an enforceable agreement, and any denuclearization process would take years to complete and verify, likely spanning multiple presidential administrations.

“We should definitely not declare victory from having a good optics moment,” Bell said. “That’s the sort of thing that sets people up for disappointment, puts unrealistic expectation of what diplomacy can accomplish and how fast it can accomplish it.”

A well-staged photo opportunity may attract the media’s attention, but that is the easy part.

“The key thing to judge will be the substance,” Cavanaugh said. “The optics should look alright. It’s in both leaders’ interest to have this look like a successful meeting.”

If both sides remain on the diplomatic track when they leave Singapore rather than a road to nuclear war, Collina would view that as progress.

“Success is that it’s the beginning of a process and the process goes on,” he said. “Failure is clear. Failure is everything falling apart… You’re back to fire and fury.”

Trump, flying straight to Singapore from what is expected to be a tense G7 summit, may be eager for a win on the global stage. However, failure to reach an agreement is not necessarily a loss if the president judges Kim cannot be trusted.

“If they made a strategic decision to denuclearize, a success would be either a timetable for that denuclearization, perhaps an interim success could be an agreement on the concrete steps each side will take,” Ruggiero said. “If they have not made the strategic decision to denuclearize, a success would be walking away and returning in an intensified fashion to the maximum pressure campaign.”

Whatever happens Tuesday, what happens afterward may be even more important.

Cavanaugh pointed to the 1986 summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, which ended in apparent failure but laid the groundwork for the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

“You could have it end with good optics, no substance, and if you do the hard work after that, still get good results,” Cavanaugh said.

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