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North Korea Crisis

US backs off from demanding quick North Korea denuclearization

Trump prioritizes diplomatic progress as November midterms loom

U.S. President Donald Trump told Kim Yong Chol, one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's closest aides, to "take your time" on denuclearization when they met at the White House on June 1.   © AP

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump appears to have ditched his strategy of demanding that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program in one fell swoop, opting instead for a longer-term approach.

Trump, who on Friday announced that his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would go ahead after a brief cancellation, now sounds open to multiple meetings. The plan seems to be to gradually work toward an agreement on the Kim regime's complete denuclearization while maintaining sanctions.

The change in tack, however, adds another element of uncertainty to the process and may have much to do with domestic politics.

Trump on Friday met with Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea's Central Committee, at the White House. The top Kim Jong Un aide delivered a letter from the North Korean leader, and Trump decided to revive the summit he had scrapped just days earlier.

Trump said he told Kim Yong Chol to "take your time" with denuclearization. The president also described the upcoming summit as a "beginning" and stressed, "I never said it goes in one meeting."

Furthermore, Trump indicated he would not seek a specific agreement at the historic first summit, saying, "We're not going to go in and sign something on June 12th, and we never were."

During earlier preparations for the meeting, the U.S. had insisted the North should abandon its nuclear weapons in short order -- and in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner. In practical terms, this would entail swift removal of nuclear warheads and International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

But experts have noted that complete denuclearization is unlikely to be achieved quickly.

A report by researchers led by Siegfried Hecker, a former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S., deems immediate denuclearization unrealistic and calls for a phased approach over 10 years.

"I don't even want to use the term 'maximum pressure' anymore ... because we're getting along"

U.S. President Donald Trump

The new, long-haul strategy includes maintaining tough sanctions on North Korea until the nuclear issue is resolved. Trump told reporters that he informed Kim Yong Chol that the U.S. would not lift the existing sanctions unless Pyongyang takes action to denuclearize.

But even on this front the president softened his tone, saying, "I don't even want to use the term 'maximum pressure' anymore ... because we're getting along." 

North Korea's insistence on a phased approach was thought to have been a sticking point between Pyongyang and Washington. Though Kim expressed his intention to commit to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula at his historic summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April, he seemed to be seeking economic support or other rewards for incremental steps. 

For Trump, the U.S. midterm election in November is an important consideration. Arranging the first U.S.-North Korea summit is a quick way to score a tangible diplomatic achievement to present to voters.

Trump said he spoke with Kim Yong Chol about formally ending the Korean War, and suggested the Singapore summit could produce a document that puts the conflict to rest. The president also said the U.S.-North Korea relationship is "as good as it's been in a long time," and that the U.S. would guarantee the safety of Kim Jong Un's regime.

Trump was noticeably courteous toward Kim Yong Chol. The two met for 90 minutes in the Oval Office. Trump then walked the North Korean representative off the portico in front of photographers, smiling. 

Conspicuously absent were Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser John Bolton, whose tough rhetoric has riled Pyongyang.

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