By: David E. Sanger and Choe Sang-Hun – nytimes.com – February 26, 2019
HANOI, Vietnam — When he vowed to “solve” the North Korea problem just before his inauguration two years ago, President Trump made clear he meant eliminating its nuclear arsenal.
But on the eve of a second meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, the president sounds prepared to accept much less, at least for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t want to rush anybody,” he said this past weekend. “As long as there is no testing, we’re happy,” he added, pointing to the North’s suspension of nuclear and missile tests.
Even to some of Mr. Trump’s national security aides, that sounded like a significant retreat at a critical moment.
As he landed in Hanoi late Tuesday, Mr. Trump appeared determined to change America’s relationship with a nation that has been a bitter and brutal adversary for nearly 70 years — and willing to shift his administration’s goals to do so, from immediate dismantlement of the North’s arsenal to limits on its size and reach.
It is unclear whether the two men will emerge in the coming days with any of the breakthroughs that appear in the mix for discussion: a freeze on nuclear production, a peace agreement aimed at formally ending the Korean War, or a schedule for dismantling the North’s arsenal.
But they chose Vietnam for obvious reasons: It is a bustling symbol of how a country that once fought the United States can become a fast-growing economy even while retaining a heavy dose of authoritarian rule.
And for both leaders, it is a moment of critical choices. Mr. Kim needs to make good on promises to nurture the North Korean economy and maintain the military might to ensure his country’s survival, while Mr. Trump faces the biggest opportunity of his presidency yet for a diplomatic breakthrough — and the stark risks of underdelivering on a signature issue after threatening “fire and fury” only months ago.
Mr. Trump has an even higher hurdle to clear: his dismissal of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, a “terrible” and naïve deal, in his telling, that was guaranteed to eventually pave the way for the country to obtain a nuclear weapon.
What the world may learn when he meets with Mr. Kim for the second time in a year is whether he is willing to accept a weaker deal with North Korea — and whether he can sell it.
North Korea presents a far more difficult case than Iran. It already has an arsenal of as many as 30 nuclear weapons, as well as missiles that can reach the United States. Its devotion to that national project is so intense that Mr. Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, angered him by saying last month that the North was “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities” because they are “critical to regime survival.”
If Mr. Coats is right, the president’s warm embrace of Mr. Kim could encourage other countries to make a sprint for the nuclear finish line, convinced that in the end, the United States will learn to live with yet another nuclear power.
Mr. Trump hopes to be remembered in history for bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula. But he also risks becoming the president on whose watch North Korea demonstrated an ability both to hit the United States with a missile and to detonate a hydrogen bomb — and who then gave it such a good deal that others decided to build nuclear arsenals, too.
Even some hard-liners in Washington, though, see the potential of Mr. Trump’s gamble. “The stars have kind of lined up,” said Andy Kim, a former head of the C.I.A.’s Korea mission center, and the man who last year ran messages between the two leaders.
Speaking at Stanford University last week, he recalled that the young North Korean leader told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Pyongyang that he was thinking of the future: “I’m a father and a husband. And I have children. And I don’t want my children to carry the nuclear weapon on their back their whole life.”
Mr. Pompeo left the meeting hopeful, but wary.
The secretary of state bristled last week when asked to reflect on how the lessons of the Iran deal applied to North Korea. Sounding exasperated, he said they were “very different situations” and insisted that “the full and final denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a verifiable manner” remained the ultimate goal.
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