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Kim Jong-Un’s abrupt shift leaves sceptics even more unsettled

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WASHINGTON: As North Korea’s reclusive ruler, Kim Jong Un, prepares for a landmark meeting with President Donald Trump, he has seized the diplomatic high ground, making conciliatory gestures on nuclear testing and US troops that have buoyed hopes in South Korea and won praise from Trump himself, who called it “big progress.”

But Kim’s audacious moves are unsettling officials in the United States, Japan and China. Some suspect he is posturing in advance of the summit meeting, as well as a separate meeting this coming week with South Korea’s president, and has no real intention of acceding to demands that he relinquish his nuclear weapons.

They worry that his gestures could put Trump on the defensive in the difficult negotiations to come, by offering symbolically potent but substantively modest concessions in place of genuine disarmament — what one senior US official labeled a “freeze trap.”

The sudden offer of olive branches, from a leader who only four months ago warned the United States that he was ready to launch missiles from a nuclear button on his desk, is sharpening a question that has long bedeviled North Korea watchers: What does Kim want?

In Washington, most officials and experts believe the North Korean leader is determined to cement his country’s status as a nuclear state while escaping the chokehold of economic sanctions. His concessions on nuclear testing and the presence of US troops in South Korea, they said, are calculated to prod the United States into easing such penalties, even before the North dismantles its arsenal.

Trump has vowed not to do that. But aides say he is beguiled by the prospect of making history on the Korean Peninsula. He has yet to impose any preconditions on his meeting with Kim, not even the release of three Americans who are being held in North Korea, though officials say the United States is working hard to get them out.

This past week, he endorsed Kim’s effort to reach a peace accord with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, which would formally end the 68-year military conflict in Korea. Inside the White House, some worry that Kim will use promises of peace to peel South Korea away from the United States and blunt efforts to force him to give up his nuclear weapons.

“People don’t realize the Korean War has not ended,” Trump said with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan sitting next to him. “It’s going on right now. And they are discussing an end to the war. So, subject to a deal, they would certainly have my blessing.”

Abe pointedly did not echo those sentiments. Japan is deeply skeptical of Kim’s motives, and worried that its security concerns may not be taken into account in any agreement between either North and South Korea, or North Korea and the United States.

Japanese officials dismissed North Korea’s announcement that it was suspending nuclear and missile tests as “not sufficient” because it did not clearly state whether it included the short- and midrange missiles that are capable of hitting Japanese territory.

“Just because North Korea is responding to dialogue, there should be no reward,” Abe said after spending two days with Trump at his Palm Beach estate in Florida, Mar-a-Lago. “Maximum pressure should be maintained, and actual implementation of concrete actions towards denuclearization will be demanded.”

Even China, which is accustomed to controlling its relationship with North Korea without interference from other powers, is chafing at the speed of events, and the increasingly warm feelings between Pyongyang and Washington. Chinese officials fear they will be sidelined in negotiations and that Kim will pursue a deal with the United States that places the North closer to Washington than Beijing.

Much of the anxiety in Tokyo and Beijing stems from the unpredictability of the main players. Trump, who threatened in August to rain “fire and fury” on the North, is now talking about “good will” between Washington and Pyongyang. Kim has proved more adroit than many expected in orchestrating the diplomatic opening to South Korea and the United States.

“They’re doing a great job of appearing reasonable, but picking apart the maximum pressure campaign, and positioning themselves to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state in the future,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a former senior Asia adviser to President Barack Obama.

Adding to the uncertainty is the flux on Trump’s national security team. Days after accepting Kim’s invitation to meet, the president fired his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, was forced to step down.

Now, Trump has entrusted the diplomacy to Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, whom he nominated to replace Tillerson and who is embroiled in a difficult Senate confirmation process. Pompeo traveled secretly to Pyongyang over Easter weekend to meet Kim, bringing along only aides from the spy agency.

Pompeo raised the issue of the detained Americans, according to a senior official. But much of his one-day visit was devoted to logistical issues, like the venue and date for a meeting, which is expected in late May or early June. The lack of involvement by the White House or the State Department, another official said, has limited the amount of substantive preparation for the meeting with Kim.

McMaster’s hawkish successor, John R. Bolton, is another wild card. Two weeks before he was recruited as national security adviser, he said a meeting between Trump and Kim was useful only because it would inevitably fail, and then the United States could move swiftly on to the next phase — presumably a military confrontation.

“It could be a long and unproductive meeting, or it could be a short and unproductive meeting,” he said on Fox News.

Since entering the White House, however, Bolton has stuck to a traditional definition of his job, brokering proposals to present to Trump, officials said. Even among officials who worry about war, there is sympathy for his view that “failing quickly” would be valuable. The United States, they said, should flush out Kim’s intentions before he has another six months or a year to master intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Updated: April 22, 2018 — 1:36 pm

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