Trump gears up to meet North Korean leader amid low expectations

Senators are greeting President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand backs federal classification of third gender: report Former Carter pollster, Bannon ally Patrick Caddell dies at 68 Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN Ambassador job MORE’s upcoming second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with low expectations following months of floundering diplomacy with Pyongyang.

“High hopes, but no particular expectations,” Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump tweets video mocking Dems not cheering during State of the Union For 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love Trump religious adviser calls anti-Trump evangelicals 'spineless morons' MORE (R-Utah) said. “The North Koreans have proved over the years that their promises can’t be relied upon.”

Pressed on if he’s looking for any specific commitments from the North Koreans, Romney said he’d “love to see those,” but that “time will tell.”

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The lowered bar comes after Trump’s first summit with Kim failed to yield a concrete agreement, while months of follow-up diplomacy did not move the needle on preliminary issues like the definition of "denuclearization."

Korea experts say it is imperative for Trump to get firm commitments from Kim this time, as they fear the president will give away too much.

“We’ll see how things go. It’s going to be an interesting ride,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Trump officially announced at his State of the Union address on Tuesday night that his second summit with Kim will happen Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam.

It will be the second face-to-face meeting between Trump and Kim after their historic summit in Singapore in June, the first time a sitting U.S. president has met a North Korean leader.

At the Singapore summit, Trump and Kim signed a joint statement in which North Korea pledged to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

At the time, the statement was widely criticized for failing to include any specifics on how to achieve denuclearization, such as a timeline or steps to verify disarmament. 

Trump’s decision to suspend major joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which he announced in a press conference after the summit, was also slammed for blindsiding the Pentagon and allies, and acquiescing to the North Korean description of the drills as provocative war games. 

Since then, Trump and Kim have exchanged several of what Trump calls “beautiful” letters.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHeather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN Ambassador job The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight Overnight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents MORE also traveled to Pyongyang twice and met with North Korea’s foreign minister at the United Nations General Assembly.

And North Korea’s lead negotiator for denuclearization met with Pompeo and Trump in Washington last month.

But negotiators have found it difficult bridge the divide over issues such as who would take the next step after Singapore.

The United States wanted North Korea to first provide a full accounting of its nuclear program, while Pyongyang wanted Washington to lift sanctions first.

North Korea also didn’t name a counterpart for the Trump administration’s special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, until recently, and Pyongyang snubbed Biegun’s September invitation to meet in Vienna.

Biegun eventually met with the North Koreans in Sweden last month and then made his first visit to Pyongyang this past week.

During the visit to Pyongyang, Biegun met with counterpart Kim Hyok Chol to discuss “advancing President Trump and Chairman Kim’s Singapore summit commitments of complete denuclearization, transforming U.S.-[North Korea] relations, and building a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula,” the State Department said Friday.
 
The two agreed to meet again ahead of the Vietnam summit. 

Before heading to South and North Korea, Biegun gave a speech in California late last month where he acknowledged that Washington and Pyongyang have “no detailed definition or shared agreement of what denuclearization entails.”

Biegun also appeared to soften the U.S. stance that North Korea first provide a list of its nuclear assets, saying that such an accounting needs to come “before the process of denuclearization can be final.” 

“We will get that at some point through a comprehensive declaration,” he continued.
 
It’s that speech that has Heritage analyst Klingner worried about what Trump might agree to in Vietnam.

Klingner said Trump should put “real meat” on an agreement in the second summit.

“One might continue the pessimist view where, if they haven’t even agreed on the city that the summit will happen, one might think if you haven’t even agreed on that, then it’s not very likely that you sat there and said, ‘OK, in paragraph 53 we’ll talk about the number of inspections that international inspectors would get per year,’ ” he said Friday morning.

Trump announced Friday night the summit would take place in Hanoi. Prior to that, there were reports of the two sides debating which city to meet in. North Korea reportedly pushed for the summit to happen in Hanoi so Kim can also meet with Vietnamese leadership. But the United States reportedly preferred the coastal resort city of Danang for security purposes.

Klingner is also concerned Trump will agree to a peace declaration, a deal that only covers intercontinental ballistic missiles, or an agreement to reduce U.S. forces in South Korea.

The peace declaration has defenders who argue it would build trust and have little legal implication, but detractors such as Klingner say it could lead to a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. 

“The biggest impediment has not been a lack of trust, but North Korean actions,” Klingner said.
 
“If you had a policeman and criminal sitting across the table from each other … North Korea is more like the criminal saying, ‘Hey, what are you going to give me if I don’t rob a bank today?’ That’s not how the law works. The person in violation has to take the first steps to convince the other that it doesn’t have a hostile intent,” he added.
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Trump’s staunch defenders in Congress continue to express confidence that the president will walk away from Vietnam with firm commitments from Kim.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOn The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration Trump to sign border deal, declare national emergency Foreign Affairs chairman: US military intervention in Venezuela 'not an option' MORE (R-Okla.) said this week he thinks whatever results from Vietnam will be more concrete than Singapore.

“If we didn’t expect really some good results from it … then we wouldn’t be doing it,” Inhofe said. “I would anticipate the president would stress stopping nuclear activity and buildup and all that. And I think he’ll get commitments."
 
"I don’t think they’d be coming back together, and I don’t think Kim Jong Un would come back together, if he didn’t feel in his own mind he was going to be more cooperative,” he added.

Trump’s critics in the Senate, though, are highly skeptical after the Singapore summit and ensuing months. 

Inhofe's Democratic counterpart, Armed Services ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedPapering over climate change impacts is indefensible Why Democrats are pushing for a new nuclear policy GOP chairman: US military may have to intervene in Venezuela if Russia does MORE (D-R.I.), highlighted the lack of a list from the North Koreans on their nuclear program as the reason for his skepticism.

“Since there’s been no, to my knowledge, designation by the North Koreans of their nuclear site, their nuclear material, their nuclear facilities, it’s going to be hard for them to come up with something really tangible,” he said.

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was similarly pessimistic about the outcome of the second Trump-Kim summit. 

“They’re not high based upon what I’ve already seen happen at the first summit,” Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWilliam Barr is right man for the times This week: Trump delivers State of the Union amid wall fight BuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president MORE (D-N.J.) said of his expectations.
 
“I don’t see a preparation that is necessary to make a for a successful summit. And above all, if you can’t even agree on what is a simple definition of what denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula means, it seems to me that definition should be agreed to before we go to a summit.”