In Washington, North Korea’s ‘denuclearization’ talk draws skepticism

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, meets with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in the truce village of Panmunjom on Saturday. (KCNA/ KNS/ AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea’s apparent offer to discuss the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula was met with skepticism by lawmakers and security experts in Washington, even as many cautiously welcomed reports that an imperiled summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un may soon be back on track.

Leading senators from both parties on Sunday scoffed at the notion that Kim would bargain away North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, with some warning that his regime may seek significant concessions from the Trump administration in exchange for promises of arms reduction well into the future.

“I would love to see them denuclearize. I’m just not very optimistic about that,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”

“They’re playing a game,” Rubio said of North Korea, which three months ago announced the successful testing of a complete deterrence system that includes thermonuclear warheads as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland. “We’re talking about them because they have nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. And [Kim] knows that. And so for him to give that up is going to be very difficult.”

The comments came hours after Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met in the truce village of Panmunjom to try to salvage the June 12 Trump-Kim summit. Speaking to reporters, Moon said Kim was still committed to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. But he declined to define “complete denuclearization,” and he acknowledged that significant obstacles remain.

The State Department confirmed Sunday that a team of U.S. officials had entered North Korea for preparatory talks despite the uncertainty over the summit. Trump announced Thursday that he was canceling the summit but later suggested in a Twitter posting that the talks might go forward after all.

Several prominent lawmakers who appeared on Sunday talks shows said they supported the idea of a summit, if only as a step toward reducing tensions.

“I think it’s possible to have a constructive and positive summit,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I certainly prefer President Trump’s choice now of diplomacy over threatening ‘fire and fury.’”

Some credited Trump’s unorthodox brand of diplomacy with helping bring North Korea to the negotiating table. “I think the president has got the North Koreans in a place that any other president might not have managed to get done,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Trump, he said, has shown that he is “also willing to walk away.”

“I think some things need to be decided before we have that meeting,” Blunt said on “Fox News Sunday.” “There needs to be a strong understanding of what both sides — what all three sides, frankly — mean by denuclearization.”

James R. Clapper Jr., a former director of national intelligence and a onetime senior intelligence officer for U.S. forces in South Korea, said he worried that Trump may be opening the United States to demands that it scale back its strategic forces in the Pacific.

“When we say ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, this could be a two-way street,” Clapper said on “Face the Nation.” He suggested that a worthy goal for the summit might be to establish a “regular conduit for communication” between the two countries, perhaps including the opening of diplomatic interest sections in both capitals.

“This is not a reward for bad behavior at all,” Clapper said. “It’s mutually reciprocal and would give us that presence there, more insight and more understanding.” From North Korea’s point of view, a U.S. presence in the country might give Pyongyang a “sense of security” against a possible U.S. attack.

But Michael Hayden, the CIA director during the George W. Bush administration, said he worried that Trump might be at a disadvantage in a face-to-face negotiation with Kim.

“I don’t know the president has done the kind of homework that would allow him to do this,” Hayden said on “Fox News Sunday.” He said the “real danger” is not the rhetoric and theatrics surrounding the meeting but, rather, the substance: “What will happen at this meeting?”

“These folks are not going to get rid of all their nuclear weapons,” Hayden said. “And if President Trump’s brand — and that’s the right word here, going into this meeting — demands something like that, this is going to end up in a very bad place.”

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Vivian Blair