The Palm Beach Post

Signs of hope on N. Korea as Trump heads to U.N. session

- By Matthew Pennington

WASHINGTON — North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is “little rocket man” no more. President Donald Trump isn’t a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

In the year since Trump’s searing, debut U.N. speech fueled fears of nuclear conflict with North Korea, the two leaders have turned from threats to flattery.

And there’s fresh hope that the U.S. president’s abrupt shift from coercion to negotiatio­n can yield results in getting Kim to halt, if not abandon, his nuclear weapons program.

Trump will address world leaders at the United Nations on Tuesday on the back of an upbeat summit between South and North Korea, where Kim promised to dismantle a major rocket launch site and the North’s main nuclear complex at Nyongbyon if it gets some incentive from Washington.

North Korea remains a long, long way from relinquish­ing its nuclear arsenal, and the U.S. has been adding to, not easing, sanctions. Yet the past 12 months have seen a remarkable change in atmosphere between the adversarie­s that has surprised even the former U.S. envoy on North Korea.

“If someone had told me last year that North Korea will stop nuclear tests, will stop missile tests and that they will release the remaining American prisoners and that they would be even considerin­g dismantlin­g Nyongbyon, I would have taken that in a heartbeat,” said Joseph Yun, who resigned in March and has since left the U.S. foreign service.

Since Trump and Kim held the first summit between U.S. and North Korean leaders in Singapore in June, Trump has missed no chance to praise “Chairman Kim,” and Kim has expressed “trust and confidence” in the American president he once branded “senile.”

But progress has been slow toward the vague goal they agreed upon — denucleari­zation of the Korean Peninsula, which has eluded U.S. presidents for the past quarter-century. The U.S. wants to achieve that by January 2021, when Trump completes his term in office.

Although Kim won’t be going to New York next week, meetings there could prove critical in deciding whether a second Trump-Kim summit will take place any time soon.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has invited his North Korean counterpar­t Ri Yong Ho for a meeting in New York, and Trump will be consulting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, fresh from his third summit with Kim this year. It was at that meeting in Pyongyang that the North Korean leader made his tantalizin­g offers to close key facilities of his weapons programs that have revived prospects for U.S.North Korea talks.

Yun, who spoke to reporters Friday at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, said the U.S. goal of achieving denucleari­zation in just two years is unrealisti­c, but the offer to close Nyongbyon, where the North has plutonium, uranium and nuclear reprocessi­ng facilities, is significan­t and offers a way forward.

That’s a far cry from last September. After Trump’s thunderous speech, Yun’s first thought was on the need to avoid a war. The president vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if the U.S. was forced to defend itself or its allies against the North’s nukes. “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” the president said.

His blunt talk triggered an extraordin­ary, almost surreal, exchange of insults. Kim issued a harshly worded statement from Pyongyang, dubbing the thin-skinned Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” A day later, the North’s top diplomat warned it could test explode a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.

Tensions have eased hugely since then, and cracks have emerged in the internatio­nal consensus on pressuring North Korea economical­ly to get it to disarm.

The U.S. accuses Russia of allowing illicit oil sales to North Korea. Trump has also criticized China, which has fraternal ties with the North and is embroiled in a trade war with the U.S., for conducting more trade with its old ally. Sanctions could even become a sore point with South Korea. Moon is eager to restart economic cooperatio­n with North Korea to cement improved relations on the divided peninsula.

All that will increase pressure on Washington to compromise with Pyongyang — providing the incentives Kim seeks, even if the weapons capabiliti­es he’s amassed violate internatio­nal law. He’s likely eying a declaratio­n on formally ending the Korean War as a marker of reduced U.S. “hostility” and sanctions relief.

That could prove politicall­y unpalatabl­e in Washington just as it looks for Kim to follow through on the denucleari­zation pledge.

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