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N Korea at crossroads

Trump and Kim pursue summit without clear path to success

Lack of fresh approach risks dooming working-level denuclearization talks

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are keen to meet again, but their last summit yielded little more than vague promises.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/SEOUL -- U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un both seem intent on a second meeting, but with the two sides having barely budged since they last spoke, whether anything will come of it remains an open question.

About a month before the historic first summit last year, Trump had proudly tweeted that "the highly anticipated meeting between Kim Jong Un and myself will take place in Singapore on June 12th." It has been widely suggested that the lack of such details about the second meeting, which Trump says will probably take place at the end of February, owes to the two sides remaining deadlocked on the central issue of denuclearization.

In an apparent attempt to shut down this line of speculation, Trump asserted to reporters Saturday morning that "things are going very well with North Korea."

"We've picked a country, but we'll be announcing it in the future," he said.

The president is likely eager for a foreign policy win as blame for the nearly monthlong partial government shutdown starts to fall on his shoulders. Arranging another summit with North Korea could balance out the negative domestic news and shift media coverage in a more positive direction, said Harry Kazianis at the Center for the National Interest, a U.S. foreign-policy think tank.

Trump had stressed before the June summit that it would be the start of a "process," adding that "I never said it goes in one meeting." Yet even as arrangements are being made for a sequel, there is no sign that the American side has figured out a way to persuade the North to move forward on denuclearization.

Along with its demands for an end to North Korea's nuclear program, the U.S. is expected to press for Pyongyang to get rid of its intercontinental ballistic missiles and pledge not to let them fall into the hands of other countries or terrorists.

But Lee Kwan-se, director of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at South Korea's Kyungnam University, expressed concern that the North will "limit itself to such steps as dismantling its [main] nuclear site at Yongbyon and its ICBM facilities, and the U.S. essentially will tacitly accept North Korea's nuclear arsenal."

America "may start to become less concerned about eliminating nuclear weapons as long as there's no direct threat to itself," Lee said.

Pyongyang, for its part, is believed to see a summit as a way to secure concessions directly from the top, and observers are skeptical that a meeting will lead to more progress on the nitty-gritty details at the working level.

North Korea has balked at U.S. demands to declare the full extent of its nuclear arsenal and submit to inspections, contending that economic sanctions should be lifted first. Under the phased approach to denuclearization favored by Pyongyang, it would be Washington's turn to reciprocate for steps already taken by the North, including the apparent destruction of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site last May.

If the U.S. "persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country" and achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula, Kim declared in his New Year's address.

This bolder stance comes amid cracks in the international effort to contain Pyongyang. Tensions between Japan and South Korea, both key U.S. allies, are rising again over historical issues. And as the U.S. and China continue to butt heads over trade, and American ties with Russia fray again, Beijing and Moscow are calling openly for a loosening of United Nations sanctions against the North.

Kim is believed to have sought cooperation from China, North Korea's patron, on dealing with the sanctions during a meeting this month with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Xi "said that he fully agreed that the principled issues suggested by the [North Korean] side are deserved requirements and its reasonable points of concern should be resolved properly," the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency reported.

Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Japan's Keio University, anticipates substantial progress at the second Trump-Kim summit.

"North Korea is fighting for survival," Okonogi said. "If tough sanctions continue for another year or two, its economy will be in dire straits."

Okonogi expects ICBM-related demands on the U.S. side. "Complete elimination will probably be impossible, but North Korea may take steps of some sort," he said.

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