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Trump's North Korea visit: Diplomatic breakthrough or publicity stunt?

In this Sunday, June 30, 2019, photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands over the military demarcation line at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
In this Sunday, June 30, 2019, photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands over the military demarcation line at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
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President Donald Trump made history Sunday when he became the first sitting U.S. president to step into North Korea, but experts remain skeptical that this step brought him any closer to the goal of dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

“Leaving South Korea after a wonderful meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Stood on the soil of North Korea, an important statement for all, and a great honor!” Trump tweeted after the meeting with the North Korean in the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom.

Trump said lower-level talks on denuclearization of North Korea will resume “within weeks.” Negotiations between the two governments had stalled after the leaders abruptly ended their last summit in Hanoi without an agreement earlier this year.

The president of the United States crossing the border into North Korea provided a dramatic made-for-TV moment that has been hailed by his allies as a groundbreaking triumph and dismissed by his opponents as a meaningless publicity stunt. Arms control experts say it is too soon to tell which it is, or if the reality is somewhere in between.

“If we’re going to succeed, this is very much a possible path to success. It is also a possible path to complete failure,” said Philip Yun, executive director and chief operating officer of Ploughshares Fund.

Yun, who served in the State Department under President Bill Clinton and was part of a delegation that traveled to North Korea in 2000, said Trump deserves some credit for trying a new approach to North Korea. However, his relationship-building with Kim must be accompanied by bottom-up engagement for this to be more than just a photo opportunity.

“Proof of progress is in the follow-up,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. “If working-level negotiations resume within a few weeks and both the U.S. and North Korean teams are empowered to discuss specific steps to advance denuclearization and peacebuilding the region, that would indicate that the Trump-Kim meeting was a positive step forward.”

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The leaders ratcheted up tensions throughout 2017, with Kim launching increasingly provocative weapons tests and Trump responding with incendiary threats of “fire and fury.” Since they agreed to meet last year, though, Trump has often been extremely complimentary toward the dictator, exchanging letters and promising lucrative economic opportunities for North Korea if he gives up his nuclear weapons program.

The first meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore last June produced a vague statement of agreement on several goals, including a denuclearized Korean peninsula, but few concrete steps for either side to take. They reached an impasse in Hanoi in February, but there had been talk in recent weeks of a possible third summit before Trump tweeted an invitation to meet in the DMZ while he was in South Korea over the weekend.

“Exchanging letters and engaging in summitry with a North Korean leader is certainly unorthodox, but North Korea’s political structure operates in a top-down manner, so it makes sense that there is a top-down element to diplomacy with North Korea,” said Abigail Stowe-Thurston, a program coordinator at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

Mathew Ha, a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that North Korean state media is portraying the latest meeting as a huge victory for Kim. He warned the U.S. president’s praise for the North Korean leader on the world stage could help the regime gloss over its rampant human rights abuses and mistreatment of its citizens.

“Holding these summits where Trump is acknowledging Kim Jong Un is a great leader...that really is a strong tool for the North Koreans to exploit,” Ha said.

Trump claimed falsely Sunday that President Barack Obama had been “begging” Kim for a meeting but Kim refused. Former Obama national security aides responded that Obama never sought such a meeting, in part because it would normalize a brutal dictatorship.

“The substance is a complete lie. But there’s a broader point: American Presidents before Trump didn’t grovel to murderous dictators to secure an empty photo opp. Diplomacy, with allies and adversaries, was conducted in the national interest, not for political gain,” said Ned Price, former spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council, on Twitter.

Some critics fear the president is unaware of the public relations value these meetings have for Kim, who has long sought legitimacy and prestige for his isolated nation.

“He just gave away something important and he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care,” tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

Davenport called Trump’s budding friendship with Kim “a double-edged sword” that decreases the risk of military conflict in a volatile region but has also allowed North Korea to continue stockpiling weapons and expand its diplomatic reach. She added, though, that the potential long-term benefit of what Trump is giving up could turn out to be worth the short-term cost.

“[Kim] demanded that the United States change its approach to negotiations and was looking for a face-saving gesture from Trump to restart talks. Trump requesting a meeting and crossing into North Korea is a political win for Kim that appears to have ended the diplomatic impasse,” she said. “If meaningful working-level negotiations resume, Trump's impromptu invitation to meet with Kim was a low cost to pay.”

Stowe-Thurston agreed that handing Kim propaganda to bolster his status internationally and domestically is uncomfortable, but it is preferable to the alternative, which is the U.S. and North Korea not talking to each other at all.

“Neither the United States nor North Korea can achieve its strategic goals by military means, and neither can achieve its strategic goals without negotiating with the other side,” she said.

According to Yun, there is no question these meetings have benefited Kim—who could not even get China’s president to meet with him before relations with the U.S. warmed up last year—but Trump has gained politically from them, as well.

“As long as it results in something, I’m willing to live with that,” he said.

Despite Trump’s personal rapport with Kim, his administration has so far persisted in its campaign of stiff economic sanctions and stepped-up enforcement. The U.S. has maintained North Korea must take verifiable steps toward denuclearization before sanctions can be lifted.

Since Trump and Kim first met last year, North Korea has dismantled a weapons testing site and begun repatriating the remains of Korean War-era U.S. soldiers, and the U.S. has canceled some joint military exercises with South Korea. Larger issues, including how each side is defining denuclearization and whether an agreement can be reached to formally end the Korean War, remain unresolved.

“The question we need to be asking is: did Kim Jong Un make that strategic choice to give up his weapons yet?” Ha said.

Amid uncertainty about the status of denuclearization efforts, The New York Times reported Sunday that the Trump administration is considering accepting a freeze on activity at North Korea’s nuclear fuel production sites in exchange for lifting some sanctions.

According to The Times, the freeze being discussed by U.S. negotiators would be similar to agreements reached by past administrations that later collapsed. At the Hanoi summit, Kim offered a freeze at his Yongbyon facility, but this potential deal would include permanent freezes at several facilities around the country.

Stephen Biegun, the administration’s envoy to North Korea, called the Times report “pure speculation” and insisted his team was not developing any new proposals. Bolton, who was in Mongolia while Trump was crossing the border in the DMZ, disputed claims that the administration is open to a freeze on Twitter.

“Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by NK.’ This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President. There should be consequences,” Bolton wrote.

Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., maintained the administration must seek “irreversible, verifiable denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula in exchange for economic and security guarantees for Kim’s regime.

“This is the only win-win situation available for the Korean peninsula, United States, and the world at large,” Graham tweeted. “Legitimizing a nuclear arsenal in the hands of an unstable, erratic despot will never be an acceptable outcome.”

Some experts said a freeze could be a reasonable first step that at least stops the North Koreans from building more weapons while negotiations proceed, but they stressed that cannot be the end goal.

“A verifiable freeze would be a critical step in curtailing the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, but it is not sufficient. Verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program must remain the Trump administration’s long-term goal for negotiations with Pyongyang,” Davenport said.

According to Ha, leaving the weapons program North Korea currently has in place would make regional allies like Japan and South Korea nervous and encourage them to pursue their own nuclear weapons.

“That could set off alarm bells across the region,” he said.

A freeze, if the Trump administration is considering it, is an imperfect and temporary solution, but if it leads to an easing of tensions, lifting of sanctions, and a peace agreement, there is a potential path to convincing Kim he longer needs nuclear weapons. If it works, it would validate President Trump’s unconventional diplomatic strategy, but that remains a very big “if.”

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“North Korea sees its nuclear arsenal as a means to guarantee the security of the Kim regime and prevent an adversary like the United States from contemplating regime change, so it is implausible that they would consider disclosing and giving up their entire nuclear program all at once,” Stowe-Thurston said.

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