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May 26, 2018

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Is Trump misreading Kim on nuclear program?

President Donald Trump has ignited a firestorm of criticism for a most unlikely reason. After having threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” for its nuclear program, Trump is now under attack for appearing too quick to accept Kim Jong Un’s deceptive gesture of stopping his nuclear and missile nightmare.

The fact is that Kim ceased testing nuclear warheads late last year. That is, he ordered North Korea’s sixth, most recent, test last September. That test, of a hydrogen bomb more powerful than any of the devices that North Korea had exploded in its first five nuclear tests, coincided with the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly at which Trump excoriated the North Korean leader, whom he was fond of calling “rocket man.”

Kim ordered a few more missile tests last year, including the long-range model that’s capable of reaching the United States, but has basically sworn off the costly exercises while pursuing what would appear to be the path of peace. So when Kim made the seemingly sensational announcement of saying that he had suspended his nuclear and missile program, he was only confirming what had been completely obvious since January when he expressed his desire to send athletes and entertainers to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February.

Trump — in his eagerness to be the American president who forged the way to permanent peace on the Korean peninsula — has been taking all the credit for the success of his tough policies in bringing Kim around to giving up his nuclear program.

Trump has no trouble claiming that his tough-sounding statements as well as sanctions have put Kim in the position of having to beg for mercy — or at least an accommodation with his enemies. In his latest tweets, he has been saying that he has actually reached an agreement with Kim on the end of his nuclear program.

Analysts in Washington, however, are almost unanimous in noting that Kim has said nothing of the kind. Rather, he has only expressed his “willingness” to talk about it.

In other words, if Trump and Kim do meet, they will still be at odds on whether North Korea has come to terms on CVID, the initials standing for “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”

Far from agreeing on CVID, Kim is not thought to be at all willing simply to dismantle the nuclear facilities that he has enlarged in size and scope since his late father, Kim Jong Il, ordered the first few nuclear tests, beginning in October 2006.

What Trump really thinks will become more clear after South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in meets Kim for their historic summit in Panmunjom on Friday. Moon has offered total support for CVID, saying North Korea has got to be more willing to give up its nukes, as Kim promised Moon’s emissaries at the Olympics.

Analysts in Washington are not certain how or if Moon will deal with the issue when he sees Kim face to face, but one thing is certain: Moon does not share Trump’s illusion that North Korea has reached an agreement on abandoning the nuclear program.

Commentators are warning Trump that he is deluding himself if he thinks he can walk into the summit with a deal already essentially agreed on. Trump may have got that notion from Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who flew to Pyongyang for a secret meeting with Kim from which Pompeo returned with the clear impression that Kim wanted to cooperate.

But can cooperation be so easy to obtain with Kim? The reality is the North Koreans have broken every agreement they have ever made with the United States and South Korea.

Most recently, Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, got suckered into thinking the North Koreans had signed on to a schedule for stopping their nuclear program in 2007.

One senior official in particular will try to save Trump from the embarrassment of falling for North Korea’s nonsense. That’s John Bolton, arch-conservative national security adviser, with a long record of criticism of the North.

Bolton, a former top State Department official and ambassador to the United Nations, is new on the national security job. Widely criticized for his hawkish opinions, he’s been largely silent in public, but he is sure to be informing Trump of the realities. There is no doubt Bolton believes Trump should leave the room if Kim shows no signs of giving up his nuclear program aside from expressing “willingness” to talk about it.

Much as Trump would love to carve a niche for himself in history and come back to Washington with the deal in his pocket, he is also saying he will cut short the conversation with Kim if it’s going nowhere. So, as the author of “The Art of the Deal,” he is hedging his bets.

We won’t know who wins the gamble until the two are done talking, however briefly, wherever or whenever they finally agree to meet for a summit that could still be a terrific success or a terrible catastrophe.

Donald Kirk has been a columnist for Korea Times, South China Morning Post many other newspapers and magazines. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.