President Donald Trump says his approach to the high-stakes summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — which begins Tuesday on a secluded island resort in Singapore — is not about preparation. "It's about attitude," he said last week.
He'll know in the "first minute" if the North Koreans are serious about negotiating, he boasted on Saturday. "Just my touch, my feel," he said. "It's what I do."
But former U.S. officials who've negotiated with the North Koreans say Trump will need a lot more than self-confidence in his own deal-making to avoid what could become dangerous mistakes. And even if Trump doesn't, there's no doubt that Kim Jong Un will be studying hard for a meeting the North Koreans have sought for 45 years.
"The scary thing is that the president may come out of the meeting thinking he's got a victory and not realizing that he has just fallen into all of North Korea's traps," said NBC News Korean affairs analyst Victor Cha, who led the Asia division of former President George W. Bush's National Security Council.
The first challenge, if the meetings on Singapore's luxurious Sentosa Island are to be more than a glorified photo opportunity, is to define the terms of engagement, and demand commitments. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the highest-ranking American to meet the young North Korean leader, assured reporters Thursday, "He has indicated to me personally that he is prepared to denuclearize, that he understands that the current model doesn't work, that he's prepared to denuclearize."
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
But what does Kim mean by "denuclearizing"? For any agreement to be lasting, the North Koreans would have to formally declare the full extent of their massive, multilayered weapons complex, including a plutonium program, a parallel uranium program, weapons precursors, facilities, missiles, and missile launchers, all to be verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Paradoxically, Trump has raised the stakes for any future weapons agreement with North Korea by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, calling it fatally flawed, in part, because it did not cover Tehran's ballistic missiles. He has also embraced recent Israeli intelligence claiming that Iran cheated from the beginning, hiding the full extent of its secret nuclear program.
And the president says that unlike the Iran deal, he will submit any agreement reached with North Korea to the Senate for formal ratification as a treaty, creating what could be a difficult political debate.
Would North Korea ever disclose all of its weapons, after cheating on past agreements with Presidents Bill Clinton in 1994 and George W. Bush in 2002? And after spending tens of billions of dollars on weapons for so many decades, would North Korea trade them to get out from under economic sanctions?
According to U.S. officials, Kim is eager to modernize his nation's economy and is looking for agricultural support. They say he believes the prestige of the summit validates his power, and that the meeting itself signifies North Korea is being recognized as a nuclear state, securing stability and legitimacy for his regime.
But that is precisely why few outside experts believe that Kim would fully dismantle his weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. And in practical terms, he probably believes he has already weakened the international resolve for sanctions with his conciliatory gestures toward China, South Korea, and the release of the American prisoners.
Despite Trump's threat to revert to his policy of "maximum pressure," again tightening the economic noose around North Korea, it is unlikely that China and Russia would sign on to a new sanctions regime. And after exiting the Iran deal, and breaking with European allies on trade and tariffs, it is unclear how much global support the Trump White House would have in a multilateral negotiation for a global crackdown on Pyongyang.
Trump is also hampered in follow-on talks by a vacuum of technical expertise in the State Department, despite Pompeo's efforts to replace the veteran diplomats forced out by his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
And despite denials, there is plenty of evidence that National Security Advisor John Bolton and Pompeo are not in sync on the approach to Kim Jong Un. Notably, Bolton has not led the traditional inter-agency meetings that would normally be held to prepare for high-level arms negotiations.
There were also the disruptive comments from the sidelines by the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who insulted Kim Jong Un this past week by saying the North Korean leader had "got back on his hands and knees and begged for it," after the Trump abruptly canceled the summit on May 24. (He reversed the decision a week later following the White House visit with Kim's envoy, Kim Yong Chol.) Asked at a White House briefing about Giuliani's venture into foreign policy, Pompeo said tartly, "Rudy doesn't speak for the administration when it comes to this negotiation and this set of issues."
None of this will be lost on the North Korean leader. According to some reports, his diplomats have been peppering South Koreans with detailed questions about Trump and American politics, even asking about that unusual recent Alabama Senate race.
Kim Jong Un may represent the so-called hermit kingdom, but he is viewed by U.S. officials as a clever and well-prepared, indeed ruthless, adversary. He will be relying on much more than "attitude" as he gets ready to meet the American president.