Trump-Kim summit: What to expect when the U.S., North Korean leaders come face to face

(The National's Susan Ormiston spoke to foreign affairs expert, New York Times op-ed columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof about what to expect from the Singapore summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.)


When New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof spent five days inside North Korea last September, he reported "the risk of war is greater than you may believe."

He found signs of anti-American sentiment everywhere — from menacing billboards showing missiles raining down on Washington, to militarized cartoon characters on the walls at daycare centres — all depicting the U.S. as North Korea's mortal enemy.

Especially the U.S. President.

"It's not that Americans are bad, but that Trump son of a bitch … that punk son of a bitch and all his cronies," one plant manager told Kristof.

But on Tuesday, the two leaders will put aside their enmity and pitch a peaceful message at an historic summit on the island of Sentosa, off Singapore.

For the first time, a sitting U.S. President will meet the North Korean Chairman. It's something Donald Trump found irresistible, if only for its drama.

New York Times op-ed writer and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof. (Jennifer Barr/CBC)North Korea has remained publicly silent, leaving the White House to set the stage and manage expectations about the summit.

President Trump has spent the past week tamping down expectations, calling it a "get acquainted meeting, plus," and saying "it's a process."

But his new Secretary of State Is hinting at more.

Mike Pompeo said Thursday that Kim Jong-un had personally assured him that, "he is prepared to denuclearize …. He recognizes the current model doesn't work, but that the [solution] has to be big and bold."

Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered the region for nearly 30 years, is not convinced the result will be anywhere near big and bold.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, met with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, North Korea, while in his previous role as CIA Director. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

"I think we were played. I think the U.S. was played by North Korea, and to some extent by South Korea," Kristof said when we met at the New York Times office this week.

"But it's an awful lot better than firing missiles at each other.

"When you have a crazy uncle in the attic, you're just glad he's not blowing things up."

New York Times op-ed columnist and foreign policy expert Nicholas Kristof says the bar for the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un is set 'very low.' 0:49

Deft manipulation

The summit idea seemed to appear out of nowhere back in March, when Trump announced a meeting. But its genesis goes back more than a year, as Trump turned the screws on North Korea by threatening war and North Korea responded with a series of missile tests.

South Korea and China, rattled by the ratcheting tensions, signed on to tougher and more restrictive U.S.-led sanctions.

"I think President Moon Jae-in of the South was kind of freaked out, to use a non-technical term, and did everything he could to try to soothe tensions," Kristof says.

Kim Jong Un embraces South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, after their meeting at the northern side of the Panmunjom in North Korea on May 26. (South Korea Presidential Blue House/Yonhap via AP)Kristof credits the South Korean president for deftly handling both sides.

"I think he rather brilliantly manipulated both President Trump and North Korea to start this peace process, and to use the Olympics to engineer that."

He adds, "Moon Jae-in is a very good Trump handler and he understands the importance of flattery.

"You know, President Trump has talked about a Nobel Peace Prize, he certainly isn't going to get it. Kim Jong-un isn't going to get it. Moon Jae-in, who knows?," Kristof shrugs. "He might."

What's achievable

But that's jumping ahead. So far, Moon Jae-in hasn't even confirmed he'll be in Singapore. And if the talks fail, he and South Korea would face the fallout.

What is achievable is really anyone's calculated guess.

Among the possibles: a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War.

Moon travelled to the White House to meet with Trump in March as part of the negotiations around a summit with North Korea. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)North Korea handing over its nuclear weapons, however, is almost certainly not going to happen at this meeting.

Kristof's take? We're more likely to see agreements to freeze nuclear development in North Korea, with vague promises to relinquish nuclear weapons a long time in the future.

However, he says the summit could be looked at as a step in the right direction even if it lacks concrete commitments.

"Even if they cheat on handing over nuclear weapons, possibly cheat on freezing uranium production, there can be a certain amount of cheating and we can still be better off," Kristof says.

Beyond nukes

What's been missing from the diplomatic wrangling and rhetoric so far is pressure on North Korea for its abysmal human rights record.

President Trump confirmed human rights was not mentioned in his meeting with the North Korean delegation at the White House last week.

"No, we did not talk about human rights," Trump told reporters.

President Trump speaks with Kim Yong Chol, former North Korean military intelligence chief and one of leader Kim Jong Un's closest aides, after their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on June 1. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

"I was really disappointed to see President Trump just dismissed the idea of talking about human rights," says Kristof.

"I do think it's incumbent on us and the media and everybody else to keep this issue of human rights alive. I mean, if you are a diplomat, you [would be] very, very focused on this truly historic opportunity to solve a nuclear crisis a standoff," Kristof adds.

"But we have to, I think, remind people there are a couple of hundred thousand people in brutal death camps. We have values at stake as well as interests. And I think we should make that clear."

Kristof tells CBC's Susan Ormiston that while denuclearization and peace between North and South Korea are centre-stage at the June 12 summit, it's important not to forget the troubling human rights issues in North Korea. (Jennifer Barr/CBC)The risk is that the talks could collapse. And when they blow up at a presidential level, Kristof points out, it's hard to put the pieces back together.

Kristof says that a diplomat once told him, "the job of leaders at a summit is to pull rabbits out of hats, and the job of the Sherpas preparing for the summit is to stuff the hats with the rabbits — and there isn't really time for that."

New York Times op-ed columnist and foreign policy expert Nicholas Kristof says South Korean President Moon Jae-in has brilliantly manipulated both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to get them to the same negotiating table. 0:36

Ultimately, the real winner at the Singapore summit could well be North Korea.

"I think President Trump signed onto this thinking that he was going to ride in on a white horse to Singapore, accept a bunch of nuclear warheads, and problem solved," Kristof says.

"Now it seems to devolve to something more like a get acquainted meeting, which is something that North Korea has wanted to do for decades."




More from CBC

Watch Susan Ormiston's interview with Nicholas Kristof about the U.S.-North Korea summit, from The National:

Pulitzer-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof sat down with The National to talk about the looming U.S.-North Korea summit and what's at stake with the historic event. 9:00

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