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North Korean action for US words?

(This was written before US President Donald Trump scrapped the summit.—Ed.)

Denver—Just days ago, the planned summit in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seemed to be hanging by a thread. Talks are still on track, but the North Koreans have expressed second thoughts, owing to statements from the Trump administration suggesting that the North would be expected to denuclearize in exchange for the mere promise of loosened sanctions.

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The North Koreans are also concerned about comments made by Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, an old nemesis whom the North—never lost for insulting words—once called “human scum.” Bolton recently suggested that talks with North Korea could follow what he calls the “Libya model”—facile shorthand for a country that simply surrenders its nuclear program for little in return.

Contrary to Bolton’s cartoonish retelling, former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi actually negotiated quietly with the Europeans and the United States for years before surrendering his weapons in 2003, and he received security commitments and assistance in exchange. But the even larger problem with Bolton’s message was that, to the rest of the world, the “Libya model” could just as well refer to the 2011 Nato air campaign that allowed rebels to topple Gadhafi’s regime. The Nato intervention ended with Gadhafi’s corpse being dragged through Sirte’s streets as the world—and particularly the North—looked on.

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Whatever Bolton meant, Trump quickly brushed his statements aside, insisting:, “The ‘Libya model’ isn’t a model that we have at all, when we’re thinking of North Korea.” Still, it remains to be seen what Trump actually does have in mind for the summit. He has decried his predecessors for being “played like a fiddle” when offering the North sanctions relief in the past. And he has wisely ruled out the reduction of US troops in South Korea as an interim gesture. But how he intends to convince the Kim regime to abandon its fundamental identity as a nuclear state is still an open question.

One of the Trump administration’s negotiating tactics has been to offer friendship and warm words, the likes of which have never before been said by US officials to North Korean leaders.

When I represented George W. Bush’s administration in the six-party talks in 2005, I had written instructions not to take part in any dinners or other social engagements with the North Koreans, or even to raise a glass in any toast that included them. Interactions with North Korean officials were to be conducted in the presence of Chinese chaperones. But this policy of forced pettiness was more or less abandoned later, and it is good to see that State Secretary Mike Pompeo has not revived it in his encounters with the North Koreans thus far.

At the summit, the Trump administration will likely hold out the prospect of a peace agreement to end the 1950-1953 Korean War and recognize the North Korean state. This blueprint is not new. The September 2005 joint statement for the six-party talks stated that “The directly related parties (read: not Russia or Japan) will negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula,” and that North Korea and America would work “to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize their relations.”

At that time, China—citing its own experience with America—proposed that the United States and North Korea each open a diplomatic office in the other’s capital. And while it took some doing, I was authorized by the Bush administration to make this offer to the North Koreans. They replied quickly: “No, thank you.” Similarly, they showed no interest in following through on a peace treaty. As a member of our interagency delegation noted, “They seem to be interested in things until they are not.”

Of course, we know what the North was really interested in. As a result of sanctions, the regime desperately needed heavy fuel for heating purposes. America and other parties to the talks agreed to deliver fuel shipments in exchange for incremental steps toward denuclearization, including the disabling of the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. In the diplomatic parlance of the time, it was called “action for action.”

Ultimately, the entire six-party process foundered on the issue of verification, when the North refused to grant inspectors access to sites that were not included in its earlier declaration of nuclear facilities. As the summit approaches, Trump and his advisers will need to determine if the North Koreans view the verification issue any differently than they did 10 years ago. Project Syndicate

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Christopher R. Hill, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is chief advisor to the chancellor for global engagement and professor of the practice in diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of “Outpost.”

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