As the Trump administration inches toward a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on his country’s nuclear weapons program, Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has the ear of the president, detailing what he believes the administration’s priorities should be in upcoming discussions.
Gardner said in a recent interview that he’s told President Donald Trump he should have one goal in a meeting with the North Korean leader.
“It has to be denuclearization – there is no other goal or purpose of this meeting,” Gardner, the chairman of the subcommittee on East Asia Policy, said in his Senate office last week. “If we have any inkling that denuclearization is off the table or is being diluted, then the president shouldn’t even have the meeting.”
Gardner also said he’s laid out for Trump and then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo that he sees a successful summit as the attainment of concrete steps toward denuclearization.
“It’s a step toward inspections, it’s steps toward a signed agreement on something like this,” Gardner said. “But the key is this: (The steps) have to be concrete and verifiable, and we don’t give up the farm, so to speak, before we know what they’ve done.”
North Korea recently indicated a willingness to denuclearize, a claim met with deep skepticism by lawmakers and experts that have heard similar rhetoric from North Korean leadership for years.
“Most of us that have worked North Korea are pretty skeptical that North Korea is going to do this time what they promised to do eight previous times in eight previous agreements,” said Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief for Korea, and current Northeast Asia research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
This gesture from North Korea is the first diplomatic outreach under Kim Jong Un’s reign as leader of North Korea, a sign the sanctions are taking a toll. But Klingner, who spent 20 years working for American intelligence agencies, said the Kim family has relied on a two-play playbook of provocation and charm offensives throughout their regime. But since Kim Jong Un took over after the death of his father, he has relied on provocation and largely avoids charm offensives.
“This could be different,” Klingner said. “Or we could be just getting back on the horse again – the one that’s bucked us eight times.”
The difference this time is a shift in U.S. policy toward a “maximum pressure campaign,” which Gardner has called for since the later years of the Obama administration.
“Our entire plan of maximum pressure was structured to cut North Korea off economically and diplomatically from the world,” Gardner said. “And to put so much pressure on them that they would have to come to the table.”
As Gardner maintains strict criteria for both the circumstances under which the summit occurs and what a successful summit looks like, he remains acutely wary of the North Korean intentions and that the country’s dictator could be attempting to garner international support for sanction relief.
“(We’ve) got to continue maximum pressure,” Gardner said. “North Korea’s already said this in 1994, they’ve said it in 2005. You know the saying, ‘fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.’ We’re not going to go down this road.”
Kim Jong Un is reverting to the charm offensives of his family’s history at a time when North Korea is strangled by the toughest sanctions yet and continuous military threats from the Trump administration. The leading impetus, Klingner said, is not clear.
“You can say it’s because of the Trump administration,” Klingner said. “You can say it’s because of the threats of war. You can say it’s because the sanctions (are) finally taking effect, or you can argue nothing’s really different and this is the path we’ve been down many times before.”
Klingner said the U.S. ramped up economic pressures on North Korea over the last two years. Gardner authored mandatory sanctions imposed in 2016, which now require the executive branch to sanction any entity or person that does business with North Korea and bumped North Korea up to the fourth-most sanctioned country by the United States.
“It was trying to push the U.S. executive branch to do more and it was also a way of trying to close loopholes, increase authority, pushing on the U.S. to do more,” Klingner said. “We’ve seen Sen. Gardner as being one of the major proponents of that.”
Since the outset of the Trump administration, Gardner has continuously said the only acceptable outcome is three-fold: complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
That seemed to be an ambitious goal until a few weeks ago when the North Koreans signaled they would be willing to denuclearize.
Gardner expressed doubts about North Korean sincerity in his Senate office last week, saying he had “significant questions that they will” denuclearize. He reiterated those concerns in a statement Thursday to The Durango Herald, just hours before Kim Jong Un crossed the Demilitarized Zone into South Korea for a summit between Korean leaders, where he wrote in a guestbook “a new history begins now – at the starting point of history and the era of peace.”
Gardner’s statement took a different tone.
“Kim Jong Un has repeatedly made bellicose statements, and the North Korean regime has a pattern of broken promises,” he said. “We cannot take anything Kim Jong Un says at face value, and instead should have a policy of verifying before we trust.”
Andrew Eversden is an intern for The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.