As President Trump reckons with the difficulty of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, he’ll sit down Tuesday with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea for a potentially tense day of meetings. It should have been a day of comparing notes with his South Korean counterpart, who recently participated in a summit with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un at the end of April. Instead, the meeting is assuming a different tone for Mr. Trump after North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, fired off a string of inflammatory statements against the U.S. last week.
Gwon stated that the North would never exchange its nuclear program for economic aid, insisted that the North will not agree to unilateral nuclear disarmament, and called the South “ignorant and incompetent.”
Administration sources confirm that Mr. Trump was incensed by Gwon’s incendiary missives, which came just weeks before his planned meeting with Kim in Singapore next month.
The administration is also struggling to reconcile its objectives with those of its regional allies, South Korea and Japan. Moon’s government is eager to ease sanctions on the North, while Mr. Trump wants to maintain the “maximum pressure” campaign he credits with bringing Kim to the negotiating table. Japan, meanwhile, fears that a grand bargain will continue to leave them at risk of North Korean aggression.
“It may just be that the White House wasn’t sufficiently steeped in the history of dealing with North Korea to understand the definitions of what North Korea might be willing or not willing to do,” Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, told CBS News.
“We saw [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo and the White House saying things like. ‘North Korea is saying things they’ve never said before,’ but in fact, they’re saying the exact same things they’ve said for 27 years of negotiations.”
Former administration officials and Korean experts have repeatedly warned that North Korea will never fully surrender its nuclear weapons program and that the U.S. would have to make major concessions before Pyongyang agrees to halt parts of it.
While officials claim that Mr. Trump is still committed to the summit, sources close to the administration confirm that the president, who has mused publicly about winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his denuclearization efforts, is not as interested in the minutiae of preparations for his high stakes meeting with Kim.
The North Korean leader, on the other hand, “is very knowledgeable about these nuclear issues while the president doesn’t read and he doesn’t listen to the briefings,” a source close to the administration told CBS News.
The National Security Council did not respond to CBS News’ request for comment on the president’s preparations.
Governor Bill Richardson, Ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, says that Pompeo, who has already met with Kim twice, should spearhead all negotiations leading up to Singapore.
“Trump should just stay quiet and let Pompeo run the show and keep the entire administration — including the press secretary and any other spokesman — off the Sunday shows. This is the critical period,” he told CBS News.
The White House’s disorganized messaging on the summit became more apparent after National Security Adviser John Bolton on “Face the Nation” last month held up a “Libya model” for nuclear disarmament with North Korea. This enraged North Korean officials, as the U.S. helped overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi less than a decade after he agreed to surrender his nuclear program. The White House attempted to walk back Bolton’s comments last week after North Korea threatened to call off the summit, and the president himself rejected the idea of modeling the plan on Libya.
“The Libyan model is not a model that we have at all when we are thinking of North Korea,” the president said Thursday. “In Libya, we decimated that country. That country was decimated.”
Former government officials who have served under previous presidents also say that bureaucratic issues have hamstrung the White House’s preparations and alienated allies.
“Our counterparts in the region are realizing that there are no interlocutors that are worth engaging with. They don’t feel confident that their message — unless it’s directly delivered to Trump, Pompeo, Mattis or Bolton — they do not trust that their messages are getting through or getting through accurately or that they are getting altered messages back,” another source close to the administration told CBS News.
“If the system was working, then there would be diplomatic channels, cables, meetings with ambassadors, staff preparation and that would be rolling up on both sides. That’s broken right now. So you’re seeing more leaders on planes,” the source added.
To that end, Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs will meet with Pompeo and Bolton later this week, after Mr. Trump’s meeting with Moon, according to a White House official. “The Japanese are very concerned that Trump encouraged them to take a very hard line on Kim and now they feel left out there,” former Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill told CBS News.
A Japanese official told CBS News that he expects Mr. Trump to communicate to Moon that a hard line against the North is still necessary.
“We should continue to put pressure on North Korea until Kim initiates the first step to verify his intentions to dismantle his missile program,” the official said.
“I hope that — I’m sure that we are on the same page,” the official added.
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