Before the second day of the U.S.–North Korean summit in Hanoi, reports emerged that President Trump and American negotiators would no longer seek a full accounting of Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. According to senior U.S. officials who spoke with NBC News, Trump intends to drop the demand that North Korea provide a detailed and accurate list of its nuclear locations — a key to any ongoing inspection of the rogue state’s missile program. So, the president travelled over 7,000 miles to abandon a policy cornerstone just prior to the main negotiations, which will occur mostly on the summit’s second day.
Trump’s decision lines up with expectations for the talks in Hanoi, where experts anticipated something of a letdown, predicting that Trump would do his traditional Korean peninsula dance: declaring a successful meeting without securing any concrete restrictions on the rogue state’s nuclear program. By letting go of this major component of a nuclear deal, the decision grounds the reality that North Korea will not agree to any meaningful denuclearization, which the intelligence community has posited for a while now. Officials speaking with NBC News stress that even if North Korea did hand over a list of nuclear sites, it would not amount to much, as Kim Jong-un would not agree to any subsequent inspection process.
The Trump administration still reportedly intends to force a concession on the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, the country’s first and most significant reactor, located about an hour north of Pyongyang. In past negotiations, the U.S. also hoped to take steps to close the facility in the 2007 negotiations between the Bush administration and Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il. Twelve years later, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will be able to offer anything Pyongyang wants in exchange for deescalation at Yongbyon; officials have reportedly advised the president not to offer sanctions relief, the main concession Kim is seeking. In a brief statement before Thursday’s talks, Trump said that he’s in “no rush” to make a deal.
At this point, it’s possible that the Hanoi summit will be a repeat of the 2018 meet-and-greet in Singapore, which served as a win for Pyongyang when Trump announced he would freeze joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises. It’s a very low bar, but as long as the “fire and fury” talk stays in the past, Americans in major cities within North Korea’s ICBM range will remain somewhat happy; prior to the last Kim-Trump summit, New York published a comprehensive, and anxiety-inducing, feature on the apocalyptic effects of a nuclear blast in midtown.
It’s easy to imagine that the president is distracted going into Thursday’s negotiations with Kim Jong-un, considering his former fixer Michael Cohen testified in front of Congress on Wednesday, laying out years of Trump’s alleged misconduct and crimes committed while in the Oval Office. But luckily for the president, his North Korean counterpart shares his disdain for the press: Kim did not contest Trump’s decision to bar four reporters from their dinner after a journalist shouted a question about Cohen.