Trump admin still hopeful for North Korea denuclearization

Trump admin still hopeful for North Korea denuclearization
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A senior State Department official on Thursday expressed optimism that the denuclearization of North Korea could be achieved during President Donald Trump’s first term, despite the lack of progress during the recent Hanoi summit and expert assertions to the contrary.

“We still believe that this is all achievable within the President’s first term, and that’s the timetable we’re working on,” the official said. “We have discussed extensively the outlines of the calendar that allow us to do that, and it is doable.”

The official said they “are pushing very hard with our North Korean interlocutors” their goal of denuclearization within the first term.

“The ultimate driver to this is not going to be the amount of days it takes, it’s going to be the degree to which we can satisfactorily achieve the steps which we feel are necessary to the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” they said.

The official’s statements come in the wake of a failed summit last month between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The meeting failed to make any progress toward the US’ goal, resulting instead in what Trump has come to call “the walk.” The official maintained Thursday that both sides left “on very good terms” but conceded that “we’re not as far along as we’d like to be.”

Experts, however, have said it could take up to 10 or 15 years for North Korea to completely denuclearize, given how technical the process is. They see the Trump administration as having expressed lofty goals.

“For technical reasons there is a lot that could be done to reduce the military threat or the military utility of that program but there is also no way that you could actually eliminate all of North Korea’s nuclear program, because that would require verification,” Siegfried Hecker, a professor at Stanford University and a former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico, explained to CNN.

“How do we know they do not have nuclear weapons in a tunnel somewhere? We will never know that,” Hecker said. “There would have to be a verification protocol that is simply technically not possible in the two-year time frame.”

Beyond the technical side of the denuclearization process, developing a deal will also take time and political patience.

Last week, after the summit in Vietnam, a State Department official said the US and North Korea are now in discussions “about things we really want to be discussing.” But the official admitted that the two countries still do not have the same basic definition of denuclearization.

“The two visions of denuclearization, at the moment, don’t converge, and this is why the talks broke down. The idea that the two visions will not only converge but be implemented over the next two years is very unlikely at this point,” explained Joe Yun, the former US special representative to North Korea, who’s a global affairs analyst for CNN. “What we should aim for is the convergence of those two views and steps to get to that convergence.”

Despite having walked away without a deal, the Trump administration saw the North Koreans as having demonstrated a thirst to continue engaging and moving toward denuclearization. During a brief news conference ahead of his meeting with Trump, a journalist asked Kim whether he was willing to fully denuclearize.

“If I’m not willing to do that, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Kim responded through an interpreter. A CNN translator said Kim’s original phrase could also be interpreted as “I wouldn’t have come here, if I didn’t have the will.”

After Kim’s reply, Trump responded, “That’s a good answer. Wow. That might be the best answer you’ve ever heard.”

Moreover, Trump himself has repeatedly asserted that there is “no rush” on denuclearization. He said before the summit that he was “in no particular rush.”

“Sanctions are on, the relationships are very strong and a lot of good things have happened,” Trump said.

What remains to be seen, however, is when the US would start to crank up the sanctions on the repressive regime.

The senior State Department official said Thursday that the sanctions already in place are having a “crushing effect” on the North Korean economy, seeming to indicate that they were enough to keep Pyongyang at the table.

But national security adviser John Bolton warned this week that the US will start looking at additional sanctions if the country is not “committed to giving up their nuclear weapons program and everything associated with it.”