Lawmakers 'hoping for the best but preparing for the worst' as Trump meets Kim again

    Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., speaks to WICS from Capitol Hill on Feb. 27, 2019. (WICS)

    As President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hold their second summit in Vietnam, Republicans on Capitol Hill see a historic opportunity to get the rogue regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program, but they acknowledge the chances of success remain slim.

    “We want a denuclearized North Korea,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. “Everybody on the globe should want a denuclearized North Korea. I just don’t have a lot of high hopes for Kim Jong Un and the North Korean government to live up to any agreement.”

    Trump and Kim had dinner together in Hanoi Wednesday, with more substantive bilateral meetings on North Korea’s nuclear program planned for Thursday.

    “We're going to have a very busy day tomorrow, and we'll probably have a pretty quick dinner and a lot of things are going to be solved, I hope,” Trump told pool reporters during dinner. “And I think it'll lead to wonderful -- it will lead to, really, a wonderful situation long-term.”

    North Korea has defied the international community by pursuing nuclear weapons for decades under both Kim and his father, Kim Jong Il. Experts say the regime in Pyongyang sees having access to such weapons as necessary to its survival, but President Trump has said giving up the program will open up the country to vast economic opportunities.

    “We need some action items with due dates and that sort of thing to move forward,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. “What the president is asking for is that, but he’s also offering to help them economically and to rejoin the community of nations. I think that’s a profound offer right now on the table.”

    The first meeting between the two leaders in Singapore last June produced vague commitments on denuclearization, but it placed few verifiable concrete requirements on North Korea. Despite what Kim described as “misunderstandings” and “hostility” from others, Trump and Kim both defended the progress they made and the relationship they established.

    “I felt it was very successful, and some people would like to see it go quicker,” Trump said Wednesday. “I'm satisfied; you're satisfied. We want to be happy with what we're doing. But I thought the first summit was a great success. And I think this one, hopefully, will be equal or greater than the first.”

    According to Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, any dialogue between Trump and Kim is vastly preferable to the alternative.

    “Two and a half years ago, everybody was worried about nuclear war with North Korea,” Hurd said.

    Trump returned from the Singapore summit confidently declaring that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat, but he has since walked back that assessment. He has struck an optimistic tone ahead of the Hanoi meeting while still trying to temper expectations.

    “Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un. We will know fairly soon - Very Interesting!”

    Previous administrations have seen a face-to-face meeting with the North Korean leader as a significant concession that would legitimize a brutal and repressive dictator. Despite months of increasingly hostile threats lobbed back and forth in the first year of his presidency, Trump has developed what he described Wednesday as “a very special relationship” with Kim.

    "I think this is a very big risk for President Trump,” Davis said. “He’s the first president who’s tried to actually give a public stage to Kim Jong Un, to get him out of his reclusiveness in North Korea."

    It may be years before it is clear whether that risk pays off. Since the first summit, North Korea has taken steps toward closing down nuclear testing sites, refrained from new tests, and returned some remains of U.S. soldiers. However, there have also been reports of continued missile development and research at other locations.

    “I’m delighted President Trump reached out,” Perdue said. “He’s offering an olive branch right now to President Kim, and I hope they take it, and I think they will, frankly.”

    Achieving denuclearization of the Korean peninsula will require complex negotiations and concessions from both sides, and lawmakers do not expect the Hanoi meeting to settle all the contentious issues that have driven conflict in the region for decades.

    “We should be thinking in terms of baby steps instead of gigantic steps,” Hurd said.

    Experts, including some Trump administration officials who have testified before Congress recently on the matter, remain skeptical that Kim will give up his nuclear weapons.

    "We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival," Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee last month.

    According to Davis, history gives Americans good reason to doubt Pyongyang’s sincerity. He noted President Bill Clinton’s administration believed it worked out a deal for North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid, but that agreement later collapsed.

    “I’m hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, unfortunately,” Davis said.

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