Alexander Vershbow, who served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea between 2005 and 2008, told Newsweek it is too early to know what Pyongyang really wants and how serious it is about denuclearization. More work needs to be done sounding out the North Korean position ahead of talks between Trump and Kim, he said.
Through South Korea, Trump has agreed to meet with Kim as soon as possible. He wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. South Korean diplomats, who have been engaging with Pyongyang, suggested North Korea is ready to discuss denuclearization after months of growing tensions on the peninsula amid a series of missile tests by North Korea.
'I do think it’s a good idea although I worry about the timing,' Vershbow told Newsweek. 'Trying to do this before the end of May is a bit risky.'
Vershbow acknowledged the success of Trump’s tough sanctions policy against North Korea at bringing the Kim regime to the table, and the diplomatic pressure the U.S. president's administration put on China to tame its neighbor and ally.
“But there’s a danger that with inadequate preparation for the summit meeting, that success could be squandered,” said Vershbow, who is now a senior advisor to the political consultancy Rasmussen Global.
“There could be a breakdown in the dialogue before it even gets off the ground.
“So I would argue for pushing back the date by a few months at a minimum, setting in motion a much more rigorous process of negotiations at the secretary of state level, or even a lower level, to try to get clearer answers on what the North Koreans are prepared to discuss and agree in these talks.”
Vershbow said it is encouraging that the North told South Korea it is ready for denuclearization.
“But there is no understanding of what conditions they attach to that, or what timeframe they attach to that,” he said.
“If they’re talking about denuclearization by the end of the millenium, as opposed to denuclearization over a one or two year period, that makes all the difference in the world.
“And whether there’s any verification, whether the conditions are the complete dissolutions of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, or whether there’s a more realistic set of conditions that have been discussed previously, like a peace treaty, normalization of diplomatic relations, of economic assistance, food assistance—those things can be discussed.”
“But abolishing the U.S.-South Korea alliance in return for some premises on paper would not be a successful outcome.”
North Korea has not yet publicly acknowledged the Trump-Kim meeting, which is only confirmed by the U.S. and South Korean governments. The Kim regime has said little through state media.
A couple of recent missives published by Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, lambast the U.S. for its “false ‘human rights’ racket” and claim sanctions had no impact on North Korea.
An editorial published in Rodong Sinmun accused the U.S. of using human rights issues to attack North Korean sovereignty, which it said, meant it had to strengthen its own 'military capabilities for self-defense.'
“Just as a drowning man catching at a straw, the U.S. is resorting to the false ‘human rights’ racket against the DPRK in the face of successive bitter defeats,” says the English language version of the Rodong article, published on March 26.
“Its aim is to internationalize [the] ‘human rights’ issue in the DPRK and kick off a worldwide campaign for putting the ‘maximum pressure’ on the DPRK. In the end, it seeks to bring down the social system in the DPRK.
“The situation makes one bear in mind the immutable truth that human rights precisely mean the state right and the sovereignty of the country and the nation, and that the military capabilities for self-defense have to be strengthened to defend them.”
The article follows another editorial on March 24, which decried sanctions against North Korea and claimed that they have not worked.
The editorial said the “positive climate prevailing on the Korean peninsula was created thanks to the proactive measures and efforts of the DPRK and it can by no means be the result of the U.S. and its vassal forces' sanctions.”
Tensions on the Korean peninsula escalated dramatically through 2017 as the North increased activity on its program to develop a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) able to reach the U.S. mainland. Analysts believe North Korea is nearing its goal.
Amid a series of provocative missile tests by Pyongyang, and joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea in response, there was a fiery war of rhetoric in which Trump and Kim exchanged threats of annihilation. Trump’s red line for military action against Pyongyang is a nuclear-armed North Korea capable of striking the U.S.
New, stringent sanctions were imposed on the North Korean regime by the U.S., the U.N. and the EU.
However, a successful 2018 Winter Olympics, hosted in South Korea, during which the two Koreas competed under a single banner, eased tensions. There were talks between the two Koreas alongside the Games, which progressed well and laid the ground for the impending Trump-Kim summit.