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Countdown to Trump’s ‘first minute’ with Kim

President Donald Trump early Tuesday taunted the “haters & losers“ who he said have criticized his decision to meet with Kim Jong Un — insisting just hours before the historic summit with the North Korea‘s dictator that the U.S. has already made headway in its relationship with the country and “will be fine!“

“The fact that I am having a meeting is a major loss for the U.S., say the haters & losers,“ Trump tweeted from Singapore, which is hosting the gathering. “We have our hostages, testing, research and all missle launches have stoped, and these pundits, who have called me wrong from the beginning, have nothing else they can say! We will be fine!“

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The tweet followed an earlier one in which Trump raised hopes and simultaneously acknowledged the uncertainty that surrounds the summit, which could help define his early presidency.

“Meetings between staffs and representatives are going well and quickly,“ Trump tweeted, adding: “…but in the end, that doesn’t matter. We will all know soon whether or not a real deal, unlike those of the past, can happen!“

Trump and Kim will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Singapore, which is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Time, accompanied only by translators, for what could be the most dramatic moment of Trump’s presidential tenure to date.

At issue is a North Korean nuclear program that has advanced at least to the brink of being able to strike the continental U.S., a threat that Trump says he will not tolerate. Politically, the summit is a chance for Trump to play the role of statesman and dealmaker, defying critics who call him a threat to global stability, and at least temporarily quiet Washington’s fixation on his ties to Russia.

It remains unclear whether the meeting will produce any tangible promises — including a possible exchange of security guarantees by the U.S. in return for a pledge by Kim to surrender his nuclear arsenal. Trump has suggested a potential deal in which the U.S. normalizes relations with Kim’s pariah nation if it disarms. Skeptics worry the summit could produce nothing more than a photo-op that does little to delay a potential military conflict.

Trump boasted last week that he would know “within the first minute” whether Kim is serious about obeying U.S. demands to end his nuclear program. The Republican president, who arrived for the summit fresh off a bitter weekend clash with U.S. allies at the G-7, has also dismissed the need to prepare, saying that “attitude” is what matters more.

Many observers expect Trump to declare victory regardless of what deal he can strike with Kim. But some worry that Trump’s lack of preparation and his desire for a win on the global stage will lead him to prematurely offer concessions, and that the North Korean leader will capitalize on the prestige that comes with being in the same room as the U.S. president.

“No matter what happens today, it’s a win for Kim Jong Un,” said Michael Auslin, a fellow at the Hoover Institution. “Compared to that, there are huge risks for Donald Trump.”

Trump, who turns 72 on Thursday, has tried to strike a confident tone so far. “Great to be in Singapore, excitement in the air!” he tweeted after landing. On Monday, he had lunch with Singapore’s prime minister, where he was given an early birthday cake.

The normally reclusive Kim, who has rarely ventured out of North Korea, separately toured the streets of Singapore. He was flanked by diplomats, security guards and journalists as he walked around the modern, diverse city on Monday night local time. The North Korean leader, for years seen only in photos staged by his government’s official media, even posed for a selfie with the Southeast Asian city-state’s foreign minister.

The White House said on Monday that pre-summit “discussions between the United States and North Korea are ongoing and have moved more quickly than expected.” But it also said Trump will leave Singapore late Tuesday, after talking to reporters — ruling out the possibility that the talks could be extended.

The Trump-Kim meeting, to be held at Singapore’s posh Capella Hotel, is the first-ever session between a sitting U.S. president and a leader of North Korea. The two heads of state will meet one-on-one (with translators), before being joined by top aides and later sharing a group working lunch.

The White House said the expanded bilateral session would include Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton. Joining for the working lunch will be White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders; Sung Kim, a U.S. ambassador with extensive North Korea experience; and Matt Pottinger, a top Asia hand on the National Security Council.

Bolton’s presence is noteworthy because he has angered North Korea by saying the U.S. should apply the “Libya model” to its negotiations with Pyongyang. Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi agreed in 2003-04 to get rid of his early-stage nuclear program in return for Western economic links, but he was killed nearly a decade later by rebels backed by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Just months ago, a meeting between Trump and Kim would have seemed impossible. Trump in 2017 had ramped up sanctions and threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the isolated Asian country, derisively calling Kim “Little Rocket Man.” Kim, who is in his 30s, kept up his nuclear tests while belittling Trump as a “dotard.”

Trump also was especially angered when Otto Warmbier, a young American in North Korean custody, was returned to the United States in an unconscious state and later died.

In recent weeks, however, Pompeo has visited North Korea twice to talk to Kim about nuclear negotiations. North Korea also freed three other Americans in its custody — the hostages Trump referred to on Twitter — and it has taken other steps, such as dismantling a nuclear test site, that have sent positive signals to the United States.

Some analysts, however, questioned some of Trump’s claims in his latest tweet.

“Wait, all research had stopped? We have not verified that, [North Korea] has not declared it,“ wrote Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear expert who served in the Obama administration. “The President does not even know the situation in the ground going into the summit. Inexcusable.”

Even though the two leaders are testing diplomacy, a huge substantive gulf appears to remain between them.

Trump aides use the phrase “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” to describe their aim. North Korea says it is committed to “denuclearization” of the peninsula as well. The key difference is that Pyongyang has traditionally defined “denuclearization” to include security guarantees from Washington that can include the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea and a pledge not to extend America’s nuclear umbrella over allies in the region.

Even if the two sides reach a common definition of denuclearization, how to achieve that goal — whether it involves tit-for-tat concessions, who will go first, and the time frame — still needs to be worked out.

U.S. intelligence officials have reportedly estimated that North Korea has as many as 60 nuclear warheads; they’ve also been reported to surmise that Kim has little interest in giving them up anytime soon, but that he might be willing to allow a Western fast-food chain like McDonald‘s into his country as a sign of good will.

Traditionally in bilateral negotiations, the leaders of the countries involved would meet or have some sort of a conversation toward the end of a long process, after lower-level aides hash out details in a set of formal talks. Trump and Kim have essentially turned the process upside down.

“We’ve just shattered the old model for how we deal with North Korea, and we’re not going back,” Auslin said.

Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump and Dennis Rodman are pictured. | POLITICO Illustration

Aides to Trump say his willingness to meet Kim upfront shows he can think outside the usual diplomatic boxes. They also note that decades of U.S.-North Korea talks at lower levels had yielded little but broken promises and accords that eventually fell apart.

Nonetheless, after first insisting that he wants North Korea to immediately give up its nuclear program before the U.S. does anything, Trump has in recent days tried to lower expectations. He’s cast the summit as just a first meeting and the start of “a process.” That process is expected to include offers of international economic assistance to North Korea if it relinquishes its nuclear program.

In a preview on Monday in Singapore, Pompeo said that America was also ready to offer Kim “different” and “unique” security assurances if he ended his nuclear program. Analysts generally agree that Kim’s top priority is ensuring the survival of his government, which he inherited from his father and grandfather and which rules ruthlessly over a population of 25 million.

Pompeo would not say whether reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea was on the negotiating table. There are around 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.

“I’m not going to get into any of the details of the discussions that we’ve had to date. I can only say this: We’re prepared to take what will be security assurances that are different, unique, than have been provided — than America has been willing to provide previously,” Pompeo said. “We think this is both necessary and appropriate.”

Speaking at the Pentagon on Monday, Defense Secretary James Mattis would not say whether the U.S. troop presence in South Korea would be part of the negotiations. “You’ll have to ask them,” Mattis said. He added that discussing the subject would be “premature” but not a “red line,” and an issue to be discussed between Washington and Seoul.

Pompeo has dismissed questions about whether Trump is fully prepared to meet with Kim, saying the president is regularly briefed on North Korea. On Monday, the secretary of state waved off another concern: that Trump’s trade-related fights with U.S. allies — including Canada, Germany and Britain — at the G-7 gathering over the weekend would weaken his hand in talks with Kim

“There are always irritants in relationships,” Pompeo said, adding that he is “very confident” that the U.S. will keep its strong ties to longtime allies.

Donald Trump (L) reaches out to Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. | Getty Images

The United States has turned to its allies and other nations across the world over the past year and a half to ramp up sanctions and reduce contacts with North Korea, a “maximum pressure campaign” designed to drag the North to the negotiating table.

Experts debate whether the campaign was the tipping point in bringing Kim around to talks. North Korea’s economy is so isolated that sanctions have limited impact. Some believe that Kim offered to negotiate only after his nuclear and missile programs advanced to a state that directly threatens the U.S. Still, Kim in recent months appeared amenable to appeals from South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, to try diplomacy.

In recent days, Trump has said he won’t be using the phrase “maximum pressure campaign” as often, even though he has not lifted the sanctions. As the prospect of a meeting loomed with Kim, Trump has also softened his language about the dictator, even casting him as “very honorable.”

South Korea and Japan are two U.S. allies with huge stakes in Trump’s nuclear diplomacy. Each country has urged Trump not only to push Kim to give up his long-range missiles capable of striking the U.S., but also short- and mid-range missiles that can reach their soil.

South Korea, whose capital, Seoul, is a city of 10 million just 35 miles from the border with North Korea, has a great deal to fear from the North’s conventional weapons. Japan, meanwhile, has consistently urged Trump to demand that North Korea mothball its chemical and biological weapons, too, as well as raise the issue of Japanese who were abducted by North Korea in years past.

Other activists, meanwhile, are hoping that Trump will broach the topic of human rights when he meets with Kim. The North Korean leadership keeps tens of thousands of people in gulags and other camps where many are essentially enslaved.

Jacqueline Klimas and Wesley Morgan contributed to this report.

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