North Korea says Trump agreed to lift sanctions after meeting

In Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and United States President Donald J. Trump walk with the documents they just signed at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island 12 in Singapore on June.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Donald J. Trump offered to lift sanctions against his regime when they met on Tuesday in Singapore, state media reported, a claim that contrasts with the United States president’s rhetoric that the economic strictures would remain.

The report from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which was published after Kim returned home from his meeting, noted Trump’s vow to suspend US military drills in South Korea.

It also said Trump committed to unspecified “security guarantees” for Pyongyang, and to “lift sanctions against it.”

Differences

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The last point was noteworthy since it went further than Trump did in his public comments during and after the meeting.

Trump said sanctions would stay, at least until the isolated nation moved to give up its nuclear arsenal. But there have been slight differences in recent comments among senior US officials as to whether that means North Korea must first complete denuclearization—and have it verified—or if some goodwill steps would be enough.

Trump himself indicated some wiggle room, saying sanctions relief could come even before the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—however that’s ultimately defined by both sides—is verified.

“I hope it’s going to be soon,” he said on Tuesday at an hour-long briefing. “At a certain point, I actually look forward to taking them off.”

The White House didn’t immediately respond on Wednesday to a request for comment on the KCNA report.

Thin on detail

The statement signed on Tuesday by Trump and Kim—after the first meeting between sitting leaders of the two countries ever—was thin on detail, besides repeating North Korea’s promise to move toward complete denuclearization and Trump’s promise of a security guarantee.

It mentioned a plan for senior officials, led on the US side by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to keep talking.

Trump several times said there were things he and Kim talked about, and agreed on, that were not contained in the formal document.

That included the US decision to halt its drills, although it’s unclear which ones and for how long.

Trump added that Kim told him separately that North Korea had dismantled a missile engine test site. So if any promises were made on sanctions, they were not made publicly.

Japanese, China pressures

Trump faces Japanese pressure to keep sanctions in place, and a push by China to lift them.

A Chinese official already signaled the country might ask the United Nations to lift or adjust the penalties, the basis for the “maximum-pressure” campaign Trump has used to push Kim toward disarmament.

China, as North Korea’s neighbor and most important trading partner, also could provide relief to Kim by throttling down sanctions enforcement on its own.

The sanctions “need to stay in place until North Korea verifiably and irreversibly dismantles its nuclear arsenal,” said Andrea Berger of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “But there’s a certain amount of political flexibility in sanctions relief in an era where Trump is at the helm.”

Sanctions hurt

There is evidence that sanctions have hurt North Korea. And besides the UN penalties, which were beefed up under Trump, countries like Japan, South Korea and the US have their own unilateral sanctions. Kim has also spoken this year of his desire to modernize North Korea’s tiny agriculture-based economy, which has very little manufacturing and few links with the outside world.

The main crossing point from China into North Korea is the city of Dandong. About 80 percent of North Korea’s international trade is with China, much of it through the frontier city filled with shopkeepers, smugglers and real-estate dealers whose fortunes rise and fall with the trade across the Yalu River. Trump said on Tuesday the China-North Korea border had already become more porous, although he added “that’s OK.”

Traders who live on the border have said Beijing—at least until recently—has been fully implementing sanctions, and that has impacted business and the movement of people.

Skepticism

Trump and Kim’s summit produced a historic handshake, but all of the work to make the deal a reality lies ahead, with no benchmarks for progress, follow-up meetings scheduled or even common agreement on what success would look like.

The lack of any details contributed to an air of skepticism in Washington about what Trump accomplished, and not just from Democrats. While the president won general praise for talking to Kim—instead of tweeting at him—even some Republicans were grasping for concrete takeaways and sounding cautious.

“It’s important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that Kim Jong Un is a butcher and he is a butcher of his own people,” Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, said on Tuesday. “Trying to reason with someone like that is like trying to hand feed a shark. Doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but you’ve got to do it very, very carefully.”

Confusion flared while Trump was still in the air on the way home from Singapore. The details were so unclear that a Republican senator tweeted out what appeared to be a misunderstanding that the Trump administration was walking back a pledge to end biannual military exercises with South Korea after Vice President Mike Pence gave a closed briefing to lawmakers. The senator later posted a correction.

Leverage at risk

Canceling the “war games,” as Trump calls them, wasn’t even mentioned in the page-and-a-half declaration the two leaders signed, adding to the anxiety about what Trump actually agreed to do.

“There’s really a very, very far way to go because this initial step was so small and disappointing,” said Bruce Klingner, a former deputy division chief for Korea at the Central Intelligence Agency and senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The next developments may come when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Seoul for meetings with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on Thursday before heading to Beijing to talk with Chinese leaders. Trump said he, Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and other US officials would meet again next week.

The document signed on Tuesday by Trump and Kim specified that Pompeo and a “relevant high-level” North Korean official would meet “at the earliest possible date.” Trump also promised he would have “many meetings” with Kim in the future.

A win

Trump sees a win in just getting Kim to the negotiating table, even though it was Kim who first proposed the talks. And the president believes the two established the kind of personal relationship that will help cement a deal.

“He trusts me, I believe, I really do,” Trump said of Kim in an ABC News interview. “I think he trusts me, and I trust him.”

The president enthused in a series of tweets from Air Force One as he flew back over the Pacific Ocean that the meeting in Singapore was “truly amazing” and he “Got along great with Kim Jong Un who wants to see wonderful things for his country.”

Trump described the next steps only vaguely and offered no specifics on how his administration will verify Kim’s actions.

“We’re going to be following things. We’re going to be monitoring things. We’re dealing with him…on a constant basis,” Trump said in the ABC News interview.

Keeping Kim engaged in talks may prove difficult given Trump’s apparent concessions on military exercises, according to Robert Manning, a senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

“I’m puzzled by why we’re giving specifics about what we’re going to do, and we have no sense of any progression or even definition of how we’re going to get nuclear weapons dismantled, disabled and destroyed,” Manning said.

Republicans concerned

Even fellow Republicans are concerned that Trump is being too credulous of the North Korean leader.

“We must always be clear that we are dealing with a brutal regime with a long history of deceit,” House Speaker Paul Ryan cautioned. “Only time will tell if North Korea is serious this time, and in the meantime we must continue to apply maximum economic pressure.”

US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said, “the next steps in negotiation will test whether we can get to a verifiable deal which enhances the security of Northeast Asia, our allies, and of course the United States.”

Trump’s praise for Kim, including his remark to reporters that the dictator “loves his people,” triggered concern, especially among Democrats, that the president might not pressure Kim to improve the treatment of those people.

“Kim was lavished with praise by President Trump as if he was a prospective investor in a Trump real-estate development on North Korea’s ‘great beaches,’ not one of the world’s worst human-rights violators,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

 

 

Image Credits: Pool Photo by Anthony Wallace via AP

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