Hanoi summit nightmare scenario: Bad deals and little change

By FOSTER KLUG, HANOI, Vietnam, Feb 24 (AP) — The nightmare scenario heading into the second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un isn’t so much “fire and fury” and millions dead. Rather, some experts fear the meeting could result in an ill-considered deal that allows North Korea to get everything it wants while giving up very little, even as the mercurial leaders trumpet a blockbuster nuclear success.

There’s little argument that just sitting down together again in the same room this week in Hanoi is a positive sign for two men who seemed to be flirting with a second Korean War in 2017, and there is, as the White House trumpeted ahead of the summit, “a tremendous opportunity” here to address a monumental problem that’s flummoxed generations of policymakers.

In this June 12, 2018, photo, U.S. President Donald Trump stands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a meeting on Sentosa Island, in Singapore. For some observers, the nightmare result of the second summit between Trump and Kim is an ill-considered deal that allows North Korea to get everything it wants while giving up very little, even as the mercurial leaders trumpet a blockbuster nuclear success. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

But with the stakes so high, a growing chorus of experts highlight a particular risk: That Trump, burned by criticism that the results of his June meeting with Kim in Singapore were vague at best and an outright failure at worst, will ignore his more cautious aides and try to strike a deal that’s cobbled together on the fly with little preparatory work.

Why is this potentially dangerous? Because when it comes to North Korean nuclear diplomacy, all deals are not created equal.

A look at some of the anxieties that are swirling ahead of the Hanoi summit:

WORRY NO. 1: A PIECEMEAL DEAL

South Korean papers have been filled with unidentified government sources suggesting that Trump and Kim might strike a deal that stops far short of the road map for the full denuclearization of the North that the United States has long insisted on.

Instead, Kim could agree to give up only part of his arsenal — his intercontinental missiles aimed at America, for instance, or his main nuclear reactor — in return for an easing of harsh sanctions. There’s also fear that Trump will eventually orchestrate some sort of drawdown of U.S. troops from South Korea or an extended halt to U.S.-South Korean military drills.

For Trump, such a deal could generate a much-needed rush of “breakthrough” headlines to help distract from swirling investigations in Washington while helping assure his supporters that he’s protecting the American mainland.

Kim, for his part, would be taking a huge step toward cementing the North as a nuclear weapons state and, as a bonus, driving a wedge in the U.S.-South Korea alliance that the North maintains is aimed at the overthrow of the Kim family — all without addressing the North’s arsenal of short- and mid-range nuclear armed missiles aimed at Seoul, Tokyo and other parts of Asia.

 

Those in favor of this kind of piecemeal deal say it’s simply a matter of accepting reality: North Korea won’t give up nukes it sees as crucial to deterring what it calls U.S. hostility, so the wise move is to work to first limit or freeze the program’s most worrisome aspects and then work toward total denuclearization.

Skeptics say this would give the North too much in return for too little. They want instead something that first forces Pyongyang to list the particulars of its nuclear program, then allows outsiders to verify the list and see the program demolished.

“Ad hoc deals or piecemeal negotiations absent an agreed-on road map would allow Pyongyang to dictate the terms, pace and duration of the diplomatic process without making a dent in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal,” Duyeon Kim, a Koreas expert at the Center for a New American Security, recently wrote.

“There is a serious risk of Trump ad-libbing his way into a bad deal, as he did in Singapore in June 2018, by relinquishing vital bargaining chips that disadvantage U.S. interests and Asian allies’ security,” she added.

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