On Friday, after the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the U.S. in 18 years hand-delivered him a letter from Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump declared that his once-canceled summit with North Korea’s leader was back on schedule for June 12 in Singapore. Trump said he and the official discussed ending the Korean War and U.S. troop levels in South Korea: “We talked about almost everything.” But when asked whether the North Koreans had agreed to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization”—a U.S. demand—Trump was less forthcoming. “I don’t want to say that,” the president said.
If there’s one lesson to emerge from the frenzied efforts to salvage the Trump-Kim summit in recent days, it’s that the devil is in the details of “denuclearization.” And Kim’s letter to Trump is reportedly quite short on details. It raises real questions about what the two leaders actually hope to accomplish.
The letter “expresses the North Korean leader’s interest in meeting without making any significant concessions or threats,” The Wall Street Journal reports, according to an unnamed foreign official familiar with the contents. Trump called it “a very interesting letter.”
With just over a week to go until June 12, Kim’s government has—publicly at least—offered strikingly little evidence that it is prepared to give up its nuclear weapons. North Korean officials regularly express interest in pursuing the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” But since the United States withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in the early 1990s, North Korea’s vague formulation only makes sense if it includes a demand for the United States to stop protecting South Korea with the American nuclear-weapons arsenal and nuclear-capable military assets, to withdraw U.S. troops from Korea, or to end the military alliance altogether.