Trump doesn’t understand what “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” entails:
“We’ve been in touch with North Korea,” Mr. Trump said at the beginning of a cabinet meeting at the White House. “Hopefully we will be able to make a deal on the de-nuking of North Korea. They’ve said so. We’ve said so [bold mine-DL]. Hopefully it will be a relationship that’s much different than it’s been for many, many years.”
When Trump talks about denuclearization, he is referring solely to the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. That is absolutely not what North Korea’s government means when they refer to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Failure to understand the significant difference between the U.S. and North Korean positions means that Trump thinks a deal will be much easier and cheaper to conclude than is in fact the case. Trump is approaching the summit with an unrealistic expectation of what North Korea is willing to concede, and that sets the summit up to fail as soon as it begins. The summit could end up being a “very exciting thing for the world,” as Trump called it, but not because it is going to be a success.
The core problems in the Trump administration’s North Korea policy remain the same as ever: they are pursuing an unrealistic, maximalist goal, they are unwilling to offer North Korea incentives to make any concessions, and they seem to think that North Korea has already agreed to give up the one thing they will never give up. Trump’s new National Security Advisor thinks the only purpose of meeting with North Korea is to accept their surrender, and his nominee to be Secretary of State sees compromise with adversaries as tantamount to U.S. surrender to the other side. Between the two of them, they are going to make sure that there is no diplomatic progress with North Korea. Trump is going to approach the summit with the expectation that he is about to score a major triumph, and then when that doesn’t happen the hard-liners around him will exploit his disillusionment and frustration to agitate for an attack.