The proposed June 12 North Korea summit meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, if it actually occurs, will present President Trump with a steep uphill climb over rugged and precariously treacherous pathways to an uncertain high point.
Both sides apparently define the pinnacle term "denuclearization" very differently.
The Trump White House views any acceptable understanding to require that rapid and total elimination of nuclear weapons capabilities be accomplished within about a year.
Sanctions relief and economic benefits would be conferred at the end of that period.
Kim most likely interprets denuclearization as freezing his nuclear program where it currently is in return for immediate sanctions relief . . . a scenario we have heard many times before. He, his father and grandfather have pledged to end or disable their nuke programs in 1985, 1994, 2005, 2007, and 2012.
They have broken those commitments every time.
Whereas China apparently favors a drawn-out, step-by-step North Korean denuclearization approach with sanctions relief benefits distributed along the way, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disagrees. His May 8 remarks distributed to reporters by the State Department asserted, "We will not relieve sanctions until such time as we have achieved our objectives. We’re not going to do this in small increments, where the world is coerced into relieving economic pressures."
Pompeo also emphasized that the Trump administration will embark upon any prospective North Korean diplomatic journey with "eyes wide open."
Last month, in advance of the planned U.S. and South Korea summits, North Korea "volunteered" to immediately suspend nuclear and missile tests and scrap its nuclear test site in order to pursue economic growth and peace. Conspicuously not mentioned in the announcement was that a large part of that Punggye-ri underground facility is already unusable.
Pyongyang’s last detonation collapsed the cavity inside Mount Mantap less than 50 miles from the Chinese border where all six of the country’s nuclear tests have taken place. A team of Chinese scientists subsequently warned that another blast of similar yield could cause an "environmental catastrophe."
It is recklessly foolhardy to imagine that Kim Jong Un will readily trade away instruments of global intimidation which have shaped U.S. and international North Korean diplomacy since the 1990s. That unimpeded threat has now escalated to include the probable and entirely unacceptable ability to deliver nuke warheads over U.S. mainland.
Some recent tough talk emanating from Pyongyang confirms that destination goals of the two summit sides may continue to be mountains apart. Last week, Kim Kye Gwan, a senior North Korean foreign ministry official, rejected the Trump administration’s demand that his country quickly dismantle its nuclear program in order to "impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq."
He was referring to the fate of Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi who was overthrown and killed by rebels led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2011 following his denuclearization concessions.
Trump responded from the Oval Office last Thursday that his terms under a U.S.-North Korea summit agreement would be different because Libya had been "decimated" by international military intervention eight years after stemming its nuclear ambitions. In that case, "there was no deal to keep Gadhafi."
The president also said that if both sides could reach a deal to rid the North of nuclear weapons, he will support an agreement which will provide that Mr. Kim would continue "running his country."
This would include security guarantees backed by "very adequate protection."
He added, "If we make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un is going to be very, very happy," and that "his country would be very rich."
Alternatively, President Trump warned that Kim’s failure to agree to full denuclearization would lead his country to devastating consequences. Referring again to Libya, he said, "If you look at that model with Gadhafi, that was a total decimation — we went in there to beat him."
Leaving no ambiguity, Trump clarified, "Now, that model would take place [in North Korea] if we don’t make a deal, most likely." Further driving that point home, he added, "If the meeting happens, it happens . . . And if it doesn’t, we go on to the next step."
Many people will be legitimately inclined to dismiss Kim Jong Un’s denuclearization offer as merely a publicity stunt to secure an aura of global relevance from a lofty summit perch.
Some will skeptically view any negotiated concessions as little more than elevated thin-air promises aimed once again at buying time and funding to expand nuclear menace. Still others of a more optimistic stripe will hold out hope that America’s new no-nonsense sheriff will finally gain the higher strategic ground.
Only time will tell if the denuclearization talks will produce real progress, or even whether they will occur at all. In any case, the outcomes will establish a defining moment one way or another.
Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) and the graduate program in space architecture. He is the author of "Scared Witless: Prophets and Profits of Climate Doom" (2015) and "Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax" (2012). He is currently working on a new book with Buzz Aldrin, "Beyond Footprints and Flagpoles." Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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