US security guarantees key to talks

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un react at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un react at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The US has offered North Korea “unique” security guarantees to try to persuade it to give up its nuclear arsenal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday, just before today’s crucial summit in Singapore.

The talks were advancing faster than expected but were still ongoing with little more than 12 hours to go before Kim Jong-un was to sit down with Donald Trump, Pompeo said.

The meeting, long sought by Pyongyang, is the first yet between a serving US president and a North Korean leader, and was to focus on the nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles the North has spent decades developing.

The Trump administration would only accept complete denuclearisation, Pompeo stressed.

In return, he said, Washington would offer different and unique guarantees “to provide them sufficient certainty that they can be comfortable that denuclearisation is not something that ends badly for them”.

He refused to go into details. But the North has long sought an end to the US military presence in the South, where Washington has about 28 000 troops stationed to protect it from its neighbour.

Trump would leave Singapore today, the White House said, a day earlier than expected and seemingly ruling out a second day of historic talks with Kim.

Pyongyang has demanded the end of what it calls a hostile policy towards it, but in public has only pledged to pursue the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula - a euphemism open to wide differences of interpretation.

Washington was eager to see if the North’s pledges were sincere, Pompeo said.

“The United States has been fooled before.”

Verification would be key, he went on, saying many deals had been signed before, only for it to be found the North Koreans did not do what they had promised.

Trump and Kim would first meet one-on-one in a closed session, before a larger meeting with key advisers, US officials said.

Pompeo implied there would be more discussions to come, and the meeting would set the framework for the hard work that would follow.

“We will see how far we get.”

In Seoul, President Moon Jae-in had a 40-minute phone call with Trump, after telling key aides that it could take “one year, two years or even longer to completely resolve the issues concerned”.

The summit is an extraordinary turnaround from last year, when Trump threatened the North with fire and fury and Kim dubbed him a mentally deranged US dotard, sending fears of conflict soaring.

But critics have warned the meeting risks becoming more of a media circus than an occasion for substantial progress.

The US leader has been ambivalent on expectations for the meeting, signalling that it could be the beginning of a process of several meetings, but later calling it a one-time shot.

The North, which has been subjected to increasingly strict sanctions by the UN Security Council and others, has made promises of change in the past, such as at the lengthy Six Party Talks process, only for the deal to collapse later.

The previous US stance, Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation said, was that “we don’t deploy a president to negotiate a treaty, we deploy a president to sign a treaty where we know where every piece of punctuation is on that piece of paper”.

“One of my worries is that we come out of this Singapore summit with something that looks remarkably like the Six Party Talks or anything that the president has previously criticised but it is hyped as something that’s historic, new and groundbreaking.”

The North’s official KCNA news agency called the summit historic, saying it would take place in a changed era and under the great attention and expectation of the whole world.

When he meets Kim today, Trump was to have his link to the US nuclear arsenal nearby at all times.

But as the leader of a newly minted nuclear state, much less is known about how Kim maintains control of his nuclear arsenal while he travels.

At the meeting, Trump was to be accompanied, as always, by a staff member carrying his “button” in the form of the “nuclear football” containing equipment used to authorise a strike.

Command and control of North Korea’s nuclear facilities is kept within a tight, impenetrable circle.

Kim, who came to power in 2011, has only just begun making trips outside North Korea.

He has been to Beijing twice and has briefly crossed the frontier at the Demilitarised Zone with South Korea to meet its president.

Singapore is the furthest he is known to have travelled since taking over.

But analysts believe it is unlikely Kim would have come to Singapore without being confident of the arsenal’s security, and the ability to order its use.

“We don’t know how developed North Korea’s secure communications capabilities are. [But] it beggars belief that Kim would not be within secure reach to authorise a possible launch if required,” Andrew O’Neil, North Korea nuclear policy expert at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia said.