President Donald Trump wants Kim Jong Un to understand he really wants them to meet.
In a startling spell of televised negotiating, Trump tried to keep alive his planned summit with Kim next month, offering “very strong” protections to Kim if he seals a deal. In another apparent concession, Trump also publicly broke with John Bolton, two days after North Korea expressed “repugnance” for his national security adviser’s hardline position.
The President’s prolonged discourse on North Korea in an Oval Office photo-op Thursday indicated just how much he has invested in the summit – which Pyongyang threatened to blow up on Wednesday over US-South Korean military exercises and American demands for an irreversible decommissioning of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
His apparent movement toward Pyongyang’s position came after two days of unusual restraint from the President, as his top officials tried to decipher Kim’s latest move and ultimately concluded the North Korean leader was grandstanding but that the summit would go on.
At one point, it seemed Trump was reaching out directly to Kim himself over the airwaves, seeking to reassure him about his central concern – his grip on power – and offering reasons for him not to cancel their historic meeting, set for June 12 in Singapore.
A much different deal
Pyongyang is angry that Bolton has been advocating the same approach to North Korea that was used during the George W. Bush administration with Libya, which boxed up and sent its rudimentary nuclear weapons program outside the country without getting concessions.
But Trump implied that he was not considering such an approach – which in any event would be far more complicated given the advanced state of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.
“The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all when we’re thinking of North Korea … the Libyan model that was mentioned was a much different deal,” Trump said. “The Libyan model was a much different model. We decimated that country.”
The President appeared to be referring mostly to the 2011 NATO-led air operation in Libya in support of anti-government rebels, which eventually led to the overthrow and assassination of longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
When Bolton talks about the Libya model, he is referring to the 2003 deal to eradicate the North African country’s nascent nuclear program.
“This with Kim Jong Un would be something where he’d be there. He’d be in his country. He’d be running his country. His country would be very rich,” Trump said, apparently referring to US private-sector investment Pyongyang could expect after a deal.
Trump was quickly pulled up by critics on social media, who accused him of not understanding the difference between the nuclear deal with Libya and the later NATO intervention.
Still, by conflating the two, Trump showed North Korea he understands its objections to Bolton’s approach, since Kim almost certainly sees his nuclear arsenal as the ultimate security guarantee for his tyrannical rule.
Ken Gause, a Korea analyst at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization, told CNN’s “The Situation Room” that the North Korean leader’s overriding objectives are regime survival and the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty.
“Whatever outcome of this summit with the United States would have to guarantee that both of those objectives are protected,” Gause said.
Trump’s message to Kim appeared to play into that goal and to be saying: If you give up your nuclear weapons, we will in return offer guarantees of North Korean security and allow you to stay in power.
“We never said to Gadhafi, ‘Oh, we’re going to give you military strength. We’re going to give you all these things.’ We went in and decimated him,” Trump said.
Referring to Kim, Trump added, “Assuming we have the meeting, and assuming something comes of it … he’ll get protections that will be very strong.”
The President did not give details about the protections he was prepared to offer Kim. But in the past, Bolton and Trump’s new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have appeared to advocate regime change in North Korea – a position the President appears to be renouncing.
Pompeo is now the major conduit between the United States and North Korea, having made two recent visits to Pyongyang – returning a week ago from talks with Kim with three released US prisoners.
The secretary of state has said North Korea must embrace “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”
Yet he has also been complimentary to Kim and has spoken of US investment that could flow into the North’s creaking power grid and economy in the event of a nuclear deal.
Some analysts have speculated that North Korea’s brinkmanship earlier this week might have been calculated to isolate Bolton from Trump and Pompeo. If so, on Thursday’s evidence, it might have worked.
Kim also appears to be making clear his bottom line that he will press for a phased denuclearization process in return for step-by-step concessions and incentives offered by the US.
Trump laid out the alternative to his preferred solution in a way that might be perceived by North Korean officials – who are known to closely monitor US news shows – as a threat, saying the Libya model – i.e. decimation – could beckon for Kim if he doesn’t do a deal.
The President’s intervention seemed timed to convince Kim to avoid further provocations in the run-up to the summit.
Some American observers saw North Korea’s threats earlier this week as a return to the cycle of offering dialogue and then demanding concessions, which doomed more than 20 years of US attempts to solve the nuclear showdown with the isolated state.
But Washington is pressing on with preparations for the summit on the assumption it will go ahead as planned.
“The President is prepared and will be ready to meet. And we’re continuing to move forward with the preparations at this point,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Thursday.
“And if the North Koreans want to meet, we’ll be there.”