The Memo: Will Trump-Kim summit sequel produce results?

The Memo: Will Trump-Kim summit sequel produce results?
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE is talking up the prospects for his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam this week, but foreign policy experts are skeptical real progress will be made.

Trump has placed a lot of emphasis on his apparent personal chemistry with Kim, but even conservative analysts are unpersuaded this will count for very much in the end.

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“A relationship by itself is not an accomplishment,” said Bruce Klingner, a Korean specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. 

Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea, added, “What we need are tangible, unambiguous, written North Korean commitments to the United Nations definition of what denuclearization is. We still don’t have a common definition.”

Trump seems to see things very differently, believing his unpredictable approach is paying dividends. The president has often alarmed the Washington foreign policy establishment in his dealings with Pyongyang — firstly, by using incendiary rhetoric that included branding Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and then by agreeing to meet the North Korean leader in Singapore last June.

The Singapore summit made global headlines, not least because of the spectacle of the two controversial leaders coming face to face. It was the first ever in-person meeting between an American president and a North Korean leader.

Trump argues this was a breakthrough — and that his deal-making abilities could pave the way to resolving tensions that have previously been intractable.

There was a bigger question mark over how many concrete achievements emerged from the Singapore summit, however. Kim agreed only to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — an elastic phrase that was not a significant break with past policy.

Despite that, Trump has remained bullish about what he can achieve through his personal rapport with Kim.  

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“I've developed a very, very good relationship. We'll see what that means but he's never had a relationship with anybody from this country and hasn't had lots of relationships anywhere,” Trump said Sunday at the White House. 

“We’re going to have, I think, a very interesting two and a half days in Vietnam, and we have a chance for the total denuclearization of an area of the world that was very dangerous,” Trump added.

Previously, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had suggested the media were consciously raising expectations for the summit so that they could condemn Trump if the results proved disappointing.

"The only one setting high expectations is probably the media because they’re looking for reasons to attack this president,” Sanders said during a Friday interview with Fox News. “They hate the idea that he’s done so well on something his predecessors couldn’t do anything on.”

But the discussions are not just confined to the press. 

Many foreign policy experts pose the same question about Trump’s dealings with Kim: Where’s the beef?

“Essentially, what we saw last year was [Trump] coming out of the Singapore summit and declaring that North Korea was no longer a threat, and he had brought peace in our time. That Chamberlain-esque tone is what we seem to be hearing again now,” said Scott Seaman, the Asia director of the Eurasia Group. “No one can argue with the role that diplomacy should always play in this kind of situation,” Seaman added, “but summit diplomacy is only as valuable as its output.”

There are also concerns that Trump himself might be prone to making off-the-cuff concessions to Kim.

The experts who spoke to The Hill noted, independently of each other, an earlier, unexpected suspension of military training exercises with South Korea by the United States.

This time around, some fear an impromptu pledge to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. The current total is about 28,500 troops, who aim to deter Pyongyang from acts of aggression toward Seoul.

Among skeptics, any move to lower the number of troops would be a problem in itself. But it would also sharpen anxiety among U.S. allies more generally. The Trump administration, they fear, would again be telegraphing that it is willing to move away from traditional American positions.

“The president has long been clear about his disdain for U.S. alliances and has reportedly talked numerous times about withdrawing U.S. personnel from the peninsula,” said Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State in former President Obama’s administration.

Speculation has swirled around the possibility that there may be some kind of formal declaration of an end to the Korean War during the Hanoi summit. Hostilities effectively ceased in 1953 but no peace treaty was ever signed.

Such a declaration would give Trump something tangible to point to as a success. But experts like Fuchs argue it would be a substantively neutral development — neither harmful nor dramatically helpful.

“A declaration is a nice thing but does not move the ball forward on the core issues between the countries,” he said. “Again, I put it in the category of ‘good headlines’ not necessarily in the category of good outcomes.”

Still, Trump remains unpredictable — and as optimistic as ever about the prospect of success in Hanoi.

“Heading over to Vietnam for my meeting with Kim Jong Un,” he tweeted on Monday afternoon, apparently from Air Force One. “Looking forward to a very productive Summit!”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency