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Donald Trump’s Summit With Kim Jong Un Ends in Failure

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Having taken recently to making the argument that his opening to Kim has averted a catastrophic war with North Korea (and that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for this work), Trump is unlikely to return right away to the military threats and pressure against the North Korean leader that marked his first year in office. But the impasse in the talks, which have been led by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun, could strengthen the hand of John Bolton. The national security adviser and North Korea cynic has been waiting in the wings as the president has pursued the very kind of diplomacy with Pyongyang that Bolton has long opposed.

Bolton’s “view and that of folks on the hard right is, the only way to do these things is through regime change,” George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me ahead of the summit. “It’s kind of the NRA approach to gun control, which is guns aren’t the problem, bad guys with guns are, so we get rid of the bad guys.”

The deadlock over Yongbyon also exposes a profound problem in the negotiations that a senior Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged in a briefing with reporters last week: the lack of clarity about whether the United States and North Korea have a common definition of denuclearization and whether Kim has actually made the decision to give up his nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials have long insisted that they will fully remove sanctions only when North Korea completely relinquishes its nuclear program in a verifiable manner. If Kim called on Trump to take this step just for shuttering Yongbyon, he must have a much narrower conception of denuclearization than the U.S. government does. (Asked by a reporter in Vietnam whether he was prepared to denuclearize, Kim responded, “If I was not, I wouldn’t be here.”)

“The summit’s major contribution is to move up the moment of truth that [Kim] has no intention to give up nukes,” Cheon Seong Whun, a national-security official in the conservative administration of former South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, told me. “Denuclearization diplomacy,” he argued, is dead.

The president, for his part, does not seem prepared to pronounce his diplomacy dead. Kim “has a certain vision [of denuclearization], and it’s not exactly our vision, but it’s a lot closer than it was a year ago,” he said on Thursday. “I think eventually we’ll get there.” He declined to comment on whether the United States will increase its sanctions and noted that Kim had assured him that he would continue to refrain from testing missiles and nuclear weapons, though this remains a verbal promise rather than a moratorium enshrined in some written agreement.

Both Trump and Kim are “testing whether the other could accept something significantly inferior to his original goals: arms control rather than denuclearization, some political gestures instead of full sanctions relief,” Perkovich noted when I followed up with him after Trump’s press conference. “I don’t think this is over, though if either side overreacts, it could get dangerous.”

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