Shouldn’t they be? Anyone who has watched North Korea consistently abrogate agreements and pull a bait-and-switch ahead of talks has to take claims that the Kim regime will agree to denuclearization with a Lot’s-wife-sized grain of salt, especially when that word comes out of Seoul rather than Pyongyang. The Washington Post reports that the White House has privately taken a more realistic view than one might assume from their public reactions:
The Trump White House is reacting skeptically in private to North Korea’s announcement of plans to freeze nuclear weapons testing, warning that dictator Kim Jong Un could be setting a trap and promising not to back off a hard-line stance ahead of a potential leaders’ summit.
President Trump called Pyongyang’s move “progress” and “good news” in a pair of tweets after the news broke Friday evening. Behind the scenes, however, his aides cautioned Saturday that Kim’s statement that the North would halt testing and shutter one nuclear facility was more notable for what he left out: a direct pledge to work toward nuclear disarmament.
Although some foreign policy analysts were heartened that Kim appeared eager to set a positive tone for his summit with Trump, which could come in late May or early June, Trump aides were less enthused. In their view, Kim’s moves aimed to offer relatively modest pledges — which could be quickly reversed — to create the “illusion” that he is “reasonable” and willing to compromise.
That, the Trump aides said, would make it more politically difficult for the United States to reject the North’s demands.
What makes this interesting is that the White House came under fire from an Associated Press fact-check over their sunny take on the topic. Picked up widely by other media outlets, the fact-check takes issue with the Trump administration’s embrace of the broadest meaning of the word “denuclearization”:
They’re misrepresenting the extent of North Korea’s intentions to “denuclearize,” a term that holds different meanings to the two sides. Key lawmakers also are skeptical Kim will fulfill even his limited pledge.
South Korea, set to meet North Korea this week, has said Kim has expressed genuine interest in dealing away his nuclear weapons. But the North for decades has been pushing a concept of “denuclearization” that bears no resemblance to the American definition, vowing to pursue nuclear development unless Washington removes its troops from the Korean Peninsula and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.
South Korea’s president has said Kim isn’t asking for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula as a condition for abandoning his nuclear weapons. If true, that would seem to remove a major sticking point to a potential disarmament deal.
But that still doesn’t address a North Korean arsenal that now includes purported thermonuclear warheads and developmental ICBMs created during a decades-long cycle of crises, stalemates and broken promises.
All true, but that’s what made the concession about American troops so intriguing. Why cough up that concession before talks even begin? The US insists that it will not offer any concessions ahead of talks on sanctions and military pressure, and Kim could have stuck to the same position. Instead, after Kim’s remarkable train journey to Beijing (and the collapse of their underground nuclear testing facility), Kim has seemed eager to offer friendly terms, even if those sometimes come second-hand through Seoul.
Still, North Korea has a long track record of speaking out of both sides of their collective mouth, especially on nuclear weapons development. So why offer the sunny view of the most recent moves by the Kim regime? In part, it’s to keep the onus on Pyongyang to meet, one should suspect. Trump and his team correctly want to avoid providing Kim a pretense for canceling the talks and ramping up the threats, at least until negotiators can get a sense of how far they’re willing to go and at what cost. It doesn’t cost anything to remain optimistic in public, as long as the administration approaches the negotiations with the appropriate level of skepticism and caution.
The biggest risk here is that the Kim regime is setting up the US, South Korea, and Japan with a political burden to have these talks no matter what. They may look for an opportune time to set the hook and then demand a rollback of sanctions to get the talks started. The White House has emphatically declared they will not offer concessions ahead of talks and Japan would absolutely balk, but Moon Jae-in might be inclined to comply. Kim could split the coalition with that stunt, but … his father tried that too, on a number of occasions, and it never worked for long.
As long as we’re not offering any concessions, though, there’s no danger in public optimism. Nevertheless, the media wants the White House to go more public with its skepticism:
Q: "What gives you any optimism that the north Koreans are really looking to denuclearize because of the statements they are making…"@PressSec: "We're not going to take the North Koreans simply at their word…" https://t.co/AstI6yj0Gm pic.twitter.com/hpRDClOTVP
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 23, 2018
There are reasons for optimism that Pyongyang might be ready to deal in some fashion, just as there are reasons to remain skeptical that they’re sincere this time around. There are a lot more of the latter than the former, but it’s not as if there aren’t any reasons to test the waters. Why not play out the hand and see what transpires?