Trump met in the Oval Office on Friday with former North Korean spy chief Kim Yong Chol for about 90 minutes – the highest-ranking official in North Korea who visited the United States. UU In 18 years – and he sent it with a smile and a handshake.
The prospect of a summit instead of the preventive war that many feared only a few months ago received praise. But, in comments to reporters in South Lawn afterwards, Trump established markers that seemed to change the US position in ways that badysts say could undermine Washington's leverage.
Trump told reporters he would not add additional sanctions to Pyongyang and would no longer use the term "maximum pressure", the international sanctions regime designed to put pressure on North Korea.
& # 39; Take your time & # 39;
While US officials said that Pyongyang should be denuclearized and take action to show that it was serious, Trump was vague about North Korea's commitment to do so, even when US intelligence warns that some of the Pyongyang's gestures to dismantle its weapons programs could be nothing more than propaganda.
And where the administration once spoke of a nuclear deal and a summit, Trump on Friday stressed that this is a "process" that will continue for a while: "I told you today: take your time. We can go fast, we can go slow & # 39 ;. "
For many Korean observers and national security badysts, it had a familiar ring: an astute regime in North Korea that was willing to speak and the enthusiasm of its interlocutors in long protracted negotiations that gave him recognition, concessions and validation.
"At the moment, it seems that President Trump's policy in North Korea is in a state of change," said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for National Interest, a group of experts in foreign policy.
"Trump's strategy now seems to be to coax the North Koreans into a potential nuclear agreement," Kazianis said, showing Pyongyang that the United States can guarantee its security and provide mbadive economic badistance.
"While that may work, my great fear is that North Korea will do what it has always done: grant concessions and economic aid and never abandon its nuclear weapons," said Kazianis. "President Trump must be cautious and not fall into the traps that the Kim regime has successfully established for American presidents for decades."
Joel Wit, co-founder of 38 North, an authorized website that tracks North Korea, saw no reason for pessimism
"My reaction is that he is now doing everything he should do on the way to the summit "Wit said about Trump. "He's softening his rhetoric, he's emphasizing positive things and he's on a path of planning toward what he hopes will be a successful meeting."
Trump emphasized the positive with reporters on Friday, even as he discussed the sanctions. He said he hoped to raise them someday and that it would not happen until North Korea denuclearized, but then he softened his rhetoric.
Hundreds of new sanctions that are ready to go will be suspended, the President said. "Why would I do that when we're talking so well?" he added.
"I do not want to use the term" maximum pressure "anymore because I do not want to use that term because we get along," Trump said. "You see the relationship, we get along."
Pressure not at all maximum
In fact, the USA. UU They have not deployed the maximum pressure said Bruce Klingner, a senior member of the conservative Heritage Foundation. And in recent weeks, North Korea has been building a buffer against US sanctions by cultivating its relations with South Korea, China and Russia.
Klingner notes that the Trump White House, like previous administrations, has declined to apply secondary sanctions to the Chinese objective to do business with North Korea.
"The maximum pressure has not been maximum because Trump, like his predecessors, continues to push to enforce the laws of the United States," Klingner said.
Another concern is that by publicly announcing that he is moving away from the term, Trump is sending a signal that could undermine the international pressure that does exist.
"I think a lot of people will feel that not using the phrase" maximum pressure "indicates that the end of the sanctions campaign is premature," said Scott Snyder, program director on Korea and the United States policy. in the Council on Foreign Relations. "It means that the North Koreans are receiving relief in exchange for dialogue, when what we need is relief in exchange for an action."
The action is what US officials had been saying they needed to see.
"If we are going to have a summit, they will have to make clear what they are willing to do," said a senior State Department official, reporting to reporters this week, on the North Koreans. "They have to denuclearize … We need action, yes, we need a commitment."
But the rules for a summit seem to have changed on Friday, when Trump was asked if Kim Jong Un is committed to denuclearization.
"I think so," said the President. "He would like to see it happen."
Trump added that Kim "wants to be careful … He will not run or do things".
It did not sound like an endorsement of the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization that US officials have been asking for.
"It seems that the United States has not yet convinced North Korea to comply with CVID," Klingner said.
More theater than reality
Klingner, a former deputy director of the CIA division for Korea, noted that even when Trump and Kim Jong Un agreed to meet, the two sides might not be closer. a common interpretation of the term denuclearization.
North Korea, he said, grants great conditionality to the term. As a self-proclaimed member of the nuclear club, Pyongyang's position has been that nuclear weapons will be reduced to zero only once all other members of the club do so: a non-start.
That worries badysts like Snyder, who said that "many people expected the administration to continue the talks after tangible steps in the direction of denuclearization."
North Korea made a big gesture recently, inviting journalists to witness the detonation of underground nuclear test tunnels, but the US intelligence community UU Now he says that the performance could have been more theatrical than real.
US intelligence officials UU And international arms control says that the preliminary badysis of North Korea's detonation indicates that the explosions were not strong enough to destroy the tunnels. A US official with knowledge of the findings told CNN that parts of the tunnel complex can still be used.
On Tuesday, CNN reported that US intelligence badessments conclude that while Kim could deliver some weapons in negotiations with the US. UU., Including nuclear warheads and missiles: you may not be willing to give up the ability to regenerate your program.
On Friday, Trump emphasized that this is only the beginning of a long process.
"June 12, we will be in Singapore," he said. "It will be a beginning, I do not say and I never said that it happens in a meeting, you are talking about years of hostility, years of problems, years of hatred among so many different nations."
Trump predicted a "very positive outcome at the end".
Analysts and experts from Korea say it is too early to say. They point to the family dance that develops between skilful North Korean negotiators and American counterparts eager to reach an agreement, a dance that has ended in failure in the past.
A significant difference this time, Snyder said, is that the talks do not start with low-level negotiators, but with Trump himself.
"What we do not know is whether it will be different because we are doing it at the top level," Snyder said.
Michelle Kosinski of CNN contributed to this report.