Trump, lawmakers cautious on North Korea signal
The Trump administration and lawmakers reacted cautiously Tuesday to North Korea’s apparent willingness to put its nuclear program on the table in talks with the United States.
While Pyongyang’s statement, as conveyed by South Korea, appears to be a positive development, officials noted that North Korea has in the past made such offers only to renege once it receives concessions such as sanctions relief.
“Hope springs eternal, but we need to learn a lot more relative to these talks, and we will,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Tuesday. “Maybe this is a breakthrough. I seriously doubt it, but as I said, hope springs eternal.”
President Trump himself appeared to strike a cautiously optimistic tone.
“We have come certainly a long way, at least rhetorically, with North Korea,” Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven.
“It would be a great thing for the world, it would be a great thing for North Korea, it would be a great thing for the peninsula. But we’ll see what happens,” the president added.
Less than two months ago, Trump blustered that his nuclear button was “much bigger” than North Korea’s, and in August he warned that North Korean threats to the United States could lead to “fire and fury” like the world has never seen.
Trump has referred to North Korea leader Kim Jong Un as “rocket man.” Kim has called Trump a “dotard.”
On Tuesday, Trump sought to take a measure of credit for North Korea’s offering.
Asked at a joint press conference with the Swedish prime minister what he thinks changed North Korea’s mind, Trump said, “me.”
North Korea’s offer came during a historic trip by a South Korean delegation to Pyongyang, in which the envoys became the first South Korean officials to meet with Kim since he took power in 2011.
In a background call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, a senior administration official said the administration has received an initial readout from South Korea, and that officials from President Moon Jae-In’s office would be traveling to the White House later in the week to provide a more in depth briefing.
Asked for a yes or no answer on whether the United States is ready to talk to North Korea, the official sidestepped, stressing the so-called maximum pressure campaign and saying the policy has always included an openness to dialogue.
“We have a long history, about 27 years of history, of talking to North Koreans, and there is also a 27-year history of them breaking every agreement they ever made with the United States and with the international community,” the official said, adding that previous offers to denuclearize have also come with “nonstarter” conditions such as withdrawing U.S. troops from the peninsula.
Earlier Tuesday, two intelligence chiefs told the Senate Armed Services Committee they have seen no indication Kim is actually willing to give up North Korea’s weapons.
“He has repeatedly stated that he would not give that up. He sees that as existential to his regime’s survival and to his own survival. We have seen nothing to indicate otherwise, that he would be willing to give up those weapons,” Coats told the committee, adding he needs a full brief from the South Koreans to better assess Kim’s true intentions.
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley likewise said he has “seen nothing to take me down a path to think that he’s about ready to make a hard right turn.”
Still, asked whether he would advise Trump to dismiss the offer for talks or follow up, Ashley said, “I think you follow it with caution. You engage.”
Skeptics of North Korea’s intentions have in the past pointed to previous attempts to make a deal with Pyongyang that ultimately failed. For example, the 1994 Agreed Framework got North Korea to freeze its plutonium production for a time, but eventually fell apart during the George W. Bush administration after U.S. intelligence discovered North Korea was secretly pursuing technology for a uranium enrichment program.
This time, lawmakers are skeptical of North Korea’s intentions, but several said the statements Tuesday are still positive.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday’s developments are “encouraging,” while stressing that he’s “not naive.”
“I know we’ve been down this path before and we haven’t gotten very far, but I do think the framework is the right framework,” he said.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he’s “feeling better about the situation there,” but added that North Korea won’t get the concession of lifted sanctions just to start negotiations.
“I have no idea whether they are sincere or not,” he said. “The one thing that the administration’s committed to doing, and I support, is that we’re going to keep applying sanctions. We’re not going to have an ease in sanctions to get them to the table.”
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, though, said the North Koreans “are playing their usual game.”
“If you look at the past several decades, they have run hot and cold in negotiations, meanwhile they have consistently improved their nuclear and missile capability to the point where they pose a direct threat to the United States,” he said. “I think this is more of their gamesmanship, and I do not expect at least our military leadership will be fooled by it.”