As US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un prepare for their historic summit on Tuesday, analysts say that no matter what happens behind closed doors in Singapore, both sides are likely to claim victory.
What “victory” means, however, could be a matter of opinion.
Trump has long demanded the “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear programme as a precursor to any deal with Kim.
But ahead of a meeting last month at the White House with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump signalled possible flexibility on this point, saying “it would certainly be better if [dismantling the nuclear programme happened] in a single step.”
More likely, analysts say, is that both sides could agree to a phased denuclearisation of North Korea and a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile testing.
That would allow both Trump and Kim to walk away claiming they had advanced their country’s interests in a way that no leader before them has been able to do, analysts say.
“For North Korea, denuclearisation is a process...a slow phasing out of nuclear weapons over a long period,” said Bhubhindar Singh, an associate professor at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). And while Pyongyang’s complete denuclearisation is in the interests of the US, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia “it is not in the interest of North Korea,” Singh added.
In exchange for giving up even part of its nuclear weapons programme, North Korea would almost certainly demand security guarantees and assurances that regime change is off the table, Singh said.
Pyongyang could also agree — for now, as a show of faith — to dismantle its nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles, including the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 models that were tested late last year, said Graham Ong-Webb, a research fellow also at RSIS.
“We can expect [North Korea] will disagree to a complete disarmament of their nuclear weapons, at least in the short period of time that the United States may expect of them,” Graham said.
“The more realistic scenario is to see North Korea dragging out a series of meetings after the summit and undertaking piecemeal efforts at ‘dismantlement,’ such as the one we saw last month at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site,” he added.
On May 25, North Korea carried out controlled explosions at its Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility in front of journalists, but no independent observers were invited to attend.
Graham said the tunnel entrances were blasted shut but that they could easily be re-opened.
Kim Duyeon, a senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, said Trump might be inclined to try to charm Kim in their meeting, without rushing toward any deal.
“If Trump and Kim cannot reach an agreement on June 12, it would still be a good outcome if they agreed to meet again and maintained a positive environment [between them],” she said.
“So far it appears both Trump and Kim are more interested in a good show and PR opportunity rather than seeking agreement on a substantive solution to their mutual concerns,” Kim added.
But there are also heavy pressures on Trump, who campaigned for president as the consummate dealmaker..
“Trump has already broken all conventional diplomatic orthodoxy...[and so] we should not expect him to be — or try to mould him into — a typical lead negotiator to a nuclear deal,” said analyst Kim.
“Kim Jong-un is far more prepared for this summit than President Trump. He will be a savvy negotiator and aim to achieve his maximalist demands while keeping his nuclear weapons for as long as possible,” she added.
For North Korea’s leader, just being granted a face-to-face meeting with a sitting US president is practically a victory in itself — a feat no other North Korean ruler has achieved before.
Kim’s “defining moment” could be simply “shaking hands with the leader of the most powerful nation on equal footing,” said Hoo Chiew-Ping, an expert on North Korea at the National University of Malaysia.
But the likely outcome of the summit, Hoo agreed, would be an agreement in which both sides claim victory.

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