Just last month, Trump’s director of national intelligence told Congress that while Kim has demonstrated “openness to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” (a vague commitment he made during the Singapore summit), his government is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has often referred to the difficulty of impressing upon North Korea’s leaders that their nuclear weapons are a sword of Damocles rather than a security blanket.
But the lingering uncertainty about Kim’s intentions nevertheless makes clear that while the Vietnam summit might be full of grand gestures of goodwill and talk of denuclearization, what Trump, Kim, and their aides will be negotiating is far more basic. During Thursday’s briefing, the same administration official noted that the objectives of the Vietnam summit include U.S. and North Korean negotiators developing a “shared understanding of what ‘denuclearization’ is” and a “road map” for future talks. Another senior administration official said that the Singapore summit, which Trump once claimed had eliminated the nuclear threat from North Korea, was simply about “breaking the ice” between Trump and Kim.
This complicates the president’s portrayal of his North Korea diplomacy. At times, like his advisers, Trump has acknowledged that persuading Kim to renounce his nuclear weapons remains a work in progress. In other moments, he has suggested that the North Korean leader has already made that strategic decision.
Read: What to expect from Trump-Kim take two
“I really believe that” Kim will relinquish all his nuclear weapons, the president said in the afterglow of the Singapore summit, as he reflected on how well he’d gotten to know North Korea’s leader during their brief encounter. “He’s de-nuking the whole place. It’s going to start very quickly. I think he’s going to start now.” More recently, Trump has estimated that there’s a “decent chance” of North Korea denuclearizing and dismissed the notion that the North Koreans are “reluctant” to part with their weapons. “I think they want to do something,” he stated on Wednesday.
The daunting task facing the president and his aides is to convince Kim that he can’t achieve his twin priorities of keeping nuclear weapons and developing his economy, and must choose between the two. Successfully convincing Kim that he will ultimately be more secure ruling a denuclearized, economically prosperous North Korea would require massive concessions by the United States.
Chun Yung Woo, the national security adviser to former conservative South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, once surprised me by saying that he could envision a scenario in which North Korea actually gives up its nuclear weapons entirely, because Kim would likely retain the know-how, technology, and materials to reconstitute his arsenal in short order if he ever needed to. Yet Chun calculated the price for such a move as “the resolution of all North Korea’s existential problems—ending international isolation, security guarantees, a peace treaty, withdrawal of U.S. troops, the permanent termination of joint [U.S.–South Korea] military exercises.”