Political News

Lawmakers Are Skeptical as They Assess North Korea Meeting

Posted June 12, 2018 6:57 p.m. EDT
Updated June 12, 2018 7:03 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both parties, deeply mistrustful of a leader who has brutalized his own country, greeted a joint agreement between the United States and North Korea coolly on Tuesday, with top Republicans warning President Donald Trump that any final accord on Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program should be submitted to the Senate for ratification.

The president’s allies on Capitol Hill said the talks represented a potential breakthrough that could lead to lasting peace with one of the United States’ most dangerous enemies. But even they agreed with more skeptical lawmakers that there was much work to be done.

Others, including leading Republican foreign policymakers, said it was unclear what, if anything, had been gained by the United States in exchange for the benefits accrued to Kim.

“While I am glad the president and Kim Jong Un were able to meet, it is difficult to determine what of concrete nature has occurred,” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a notably brief statement.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an on-and-off ally of Trump and one of the Senate’s leading Republican foreign policy hawks, called the talks a good “first step” but little more.

“They’ve promised to give up their nuclear weapons; they’ve done this twice,” Graham said Tuesday on “CBS This Morning,” referring to similar negotiations in the 1990s and 2000s under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that ultimately proved ineffective.

Graham and others insisted that the president would need their signoff on any deal. Sen. Mitch Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said he hoped that it would take the form of a treaty, which would likely make any agreement more durable, but requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate — a very difficult threshold.

“If the president can reach a significant agreement with the North Koreans, I hope it takes the form of a treaty,” McConnell told reporters. “That’s what the founders of our country anticipated.”

The skepticism stood in marked contrast to comments by Trump, who told reporters after the meeting that he and Kim had “decided to leave the past behind” and predicted that soon “the world will see a major change.”

Details of the summit, transmitted from Singapore to anxious lawmakers in Washington overnight, were scarce on Tuesday beyond the joint statement released by the two nations and subsequent comments by Trump.

The statement said tTrump had committed to security for North Korea in exchange for Kim’s commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

As if to prove the point, one Republican senator got into a public tangle with representatives of Vice President Mike Pence over the details of an unexpected concession by Trump that the United States would suspend joint military exercises with South Korean forces.

The senator, Cory Gardner of Colorado, told reporters that Pence had privately told Republicans the exercises would continue, but a spokeswoman for the vice president said that was false. After a back-and-forth on Twitter, Gardner clarified that Pence had said that regular readiness training would continue, but not full-scale war exercises.

Gardner was not alone in his confusion.

“I couldn’t tell what he was saying,” Corker told reporters afterward, referring to Pence.

Democrats were far harsher in their assessment of Trump, saying that the president had been played by the North Korean leader.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader, said he worried that Kim, having won some concessions, might choose not to advance negotiations further or follow through on his pledges.

“Given that they have gotten a lot of the things they’ve already wanted, the worry here, very real, is that they will back off here too,” Schumer said, “taking their little bag of goodies home, leaving us empty-handed, leaving the president empty-handed.” Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, all but dismissed the “vague promises” agreed to by the two leaders and lamented that “in his haste to reach an agreement, President Trump elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo.”

Those outcomes made it clear that Trump had not adequately prepared, and had paid the price, said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee.

“I think we took a big step backward,” Murphy said, adding: “I wish that they would’ve taken the time to do more planning and to do more pre-work.”

Several Republicans drew attention to the extreme brutality of Kim’s government, which according to the United Nations includes enslavement, rape, torture, murder and intentional starvation. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., aired skepticism in a string of posts on Twitter that Kim would fully disarm, and said that he would not support “any ‘deal’ that doesn’t ultimately bring to an end these atrocities under #KimJongun.”

Others mixed hopeful pronouncements with bellicose remarks. Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., said Kim had a path to economic prosperity and regional security if he chose to take it.

“However, if Kim Jong Un throws away this opportunity, it will mean the military destruction of his country and his death,” he said.

For many lawmakers, the rapid transformation of a relationship defined by nuclear taunts and imminent threats into one of grins and glad-handing at a resort halfway across the world only added to a sense of mistrust in Kim’s real intentions.

“Trying to reason with someone like that is like trying to hand-feed a shark,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but you have to do it very carefully.”