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Time for Trump to deliver on North Korea

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Michael Knigge
February 27, 2019

Before his second summit with Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump has already hailed what he calls historic achievements towards North Korean denuclearization. Still, there appears to be path for real success, says Michael Knigge.

Vietnam Treffen Donald Trump und Kim Jong Un in Hanoi
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Vatsyayana

For days now the White House has been busy trying to shape public opinion around the second meeting of United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In a so-called fact sheet released last week, the Trump administration defined the overarching goal of the summit in typically grandiose terms.

"President Donald J. Trump is committed to achieving a bright and secure future for all people on the Korean Peninsula and across the world," declared the communique in bold letters on the top of the page. Two bullet points down, the White House listed the more modest goals of the meeting: progress towards "transformed relations, a lasting and stable peace, and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

Read more: Stakes are high for US to show progress on North Korea

But just in case the meeting fails to produce tangible progress, the White House preemptively lets the world know that "President Trump's historic negotiations with Chairman Kim are already producing results," namely that the two leaders met in person, that the ties between both countries "have reached new heights," that Pyongyang has not tested a nuclear missile in more than a year and that Americans are no longer detained in North Korea.

Denuclearization: The key goal

To give credit where credit is due, the White House is right that North Korea has so far ceased its nuclear missile tests, ties between both leaders are ostensibly good and the detained Americans have been released.

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Michael Knigge is DW's US correspondent

Let's leave aside the question whether Pyongyang's nuclear arms testing hiatus is the sole result of Trump's negotiating savvy. And let's also ignore Trump's unproven claim that his predecessor was on the brink of "a big war" with North Korea, and that that danger that was only eliminated through his engagement with Kim.

Let's focus instead on what Trump had originally outlined as his key goal for negotiating directly with Kim: the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. Unfortunately, Trump has so far made little tangible progress towards that goal. And while the White House cites in its list of historic achievements that Kim reaffirmed denuclearization in his New Year's speech, who would know better than Trump that saying something and doing something are two completely different undertakings?

So if this meeting is supposed to be more than another photo opportunity documenting the bromance between Kim and Trump then it must produce concrete results. According to a Vox report, the tentative outline of a possible deal includes an end of the war declaration between the US and North Korea, the establishment of liaison offices and the shutdown of Pyonygang's Yongbyong nuclear reactor, as well as joint economic projects and the return of the remains of US soldiers.  

Possible progress?

Should Trump and Kim in fact agree on a deal along these lines it really could be called a success — under the condition that the Yongbyon reactor shutdown is verifiable and truly irreversible, unlike previous times when Pyongyang promised to close it down only to reactivate it later.

To be sure, even then the way to complete denuclearization would still be long and arduous, but it would be an important step towards that goal instead of mere words.

Does Trump's North Korea strategy work?