Making Sense of the Trump-Kim Summit

People watch a television news screen showing pictures of U.S. President Donald Trump (center) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (right) at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, November 29, 2017.

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The upcoming June 12 summit in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is truly unprecedented: It will be the first time ever that sitting leaders of the two countries will meet. The 70-year history of U.S.-North Korea relations is one of conflict and mistrust: the Korean War, followed by decades of a cold peace interspersed with violent incidents; no formal diplomatic relations; and numerous attempts at talks and agreements to halt North Korean weapons programs, none of which succeeded.1

The upcoming meeting between the two leaders has engendered a wide variety of reactions, from hope that this diplomatic process can finally end the conflict on the Korean Peninsula to deep skepticism that this is a North Korean ploy to buy time for its nuclear weapons programs, get economic sanctions relief, and gain international prestige.

Whatever the truth, the two countries are in uncharted waters.

How did we get here?

It is unclear why Kim Jong Un decided to embark on diplomacy at the beginning of 2018. There are a number of possible explanations, and the real reason is likely a combination of them all:

  • Kim’s strategy. In 2017, Kim embarked on the fastest pace of nuclear and ballistic missile tests in North Korean history, including successful tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach much of the continental United States, as well as North Korea’s highest-yield nuclear weapon yet—claimed to be a hydrogen bomb.2 With these capabilities demonstrated to the world, Kim announced on January 1 the “perfecting” of North Korea’s weapons programs.3 Kim could now believe he has a sufficient amount of leverage in negotiations. On April 21, Kim announced the end of his byungjin policy of pursuing nuclear and economic development concurrently, stating that nuclear capability is enough.4 Kim may now be using the completion of his nuclear program to achieve economic wins.
  • International pressure. Over the past few years, the United States, the United Nations, China, and others have tightened the economic sanctions on North Korea that would—if fully implemented—cut off more than approximately 90 percent of North Korean exports, the vast majority of which go to or through China.5 In addition, President Trump has repeatedly threatened military action against North Korea. It is possible that North Korea needs the economic relief because of sanctions and/or is concerned about U.S. military action—both potential reasons to start diplomacy.
  • Moon’s deft hand. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is more inclined than his immediate predecessor and his allies in the United States to engage diplomatically with North Korea. He has expressed an interest in engagement since his 2017 presidential campaign and jumped at the opportunity when Kim opened that door this year.6 Since then, Moon has been moving quickly to drive the agenda and pace of diplomacy, including by mediating between North Korea and the United States. His interest in diplomacy may also be driven by fears of a rocky relationship with the United States, uncertainty of whether Trump has Seoul’s interests in mind, and the existential threat to South Korea posed by military action on the Korean Peninsula.
  • Kim is trying to divide the United States and South Korea. North Korea—formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—has long attempted to divide South Korea—formally the Republic of Korea (ROK)—from its ally the United States, and Kim may now see an opening. Public rifts between Trump and South Korean leaders over trade and North Korea have placed real strain on the alliance.7 Sensing Moon’s desire for engagement and concerns about Trump, Kim’s interest in diplomacy may be an attempt to improve relations with Seoul at the expense of Seoul’s relationship with Washington. A divided U.S.-ROK alliance creates opportunities for North Korea to get relief from economic and diplomatic pressure and makes it much harder for the United States to consider military action.

Who are the players, and what are their motivations and goals?

Donald Trump

The president is likely motivated by a few different interests and impulses:

  • Winning. Trump likes to win—or at least to appear to win. He recognizes that a meeting with the leader of North Korea is unprecedented, and the idea of a successful meeting is likely very appealing, even if there is no substantive progress. With North Korea’s recent release of three U.S. hostages, Trump has already gotten a win in the lead-up to the summit.8
  • Military option backup. Trump has regularly spoken about the ability of the United States to attack North Korea and assured the public that his kinetic capabilities outclass Kim’s.9 Trump wants success but likely thinks that he has other options if he believes diplomacy has failed.
  • A dislike of America’s alliance with South Korea. Trump has long criticized America’s alliances, and since his presidential campaign, he has repeatedly attacked South Korea over trade issues and military burden-sharing, suggesting repeatedly that the United States could withdraw its troops from the Korean Peninsula.10
  • Conflicted advisers. Trump’s advisers seem to disagree on how to proceed with North Korea. National security adviser John Bolton has publicly advocated for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea and suggested that if North Korea is not ready to immediately give up its weapons, then there’s little about which to talk.11 Secretary of Defense James Mattis has advocated for diplomacy and warned about the dangers of military conflict, saying that war on the Korean Peninsula “would be catastrophic.”12
  • Unpredictable. If anything, Trump is unpredictable. What he will say or do when in the room with Kim is anyone’s guess, as Trump is known to disregard talking points and carefully crafted policies.

Kim Jong Un

There is not a lot of publicly available information on Kim Jong Un, which is why his recent meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Moon were revealing—they were the first times that Kim had met with the two leaders and provided clues about his leadership style.

  • A man of extremes? Former CIA North Korea analyst Jung H. Pak has noted that Kim appears to go all out in whatever he’s doing: First it was the rapid pace of nuclear and missile tests, and now it’s his diplomatic offensive.13 Until last month, Kim had never met with a foreign leader since coming into power—today, he has met with two and has plans for a meeting with Trump and another meeting with Moon.14 He has also just come back from a surprise second summit with Xi, and there are even rumblings of a possible summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.15
  • Plays to the cameras. Kim’s summit meeting with Moon revealed a confident leader who knows how to work the media. Kim was smiling; attempting to sound reasonable and interested in progress; and even spontaneous, as when he invited Moon to step into North Korea together.16
  • Ruthless. While Kim is trying to portray himself to the world as a reasonable statesman, the reality is that he rules over one of the most oppressive regimes on earth. The extent of human rights abuses in the country is hard to fathom. More than 100,000 people are estimated to be held in abusive labor prisons that engage in torture.17 Civil society is effectively banned.18 Kim is reported to have personally ordered the execution of more than 300 people, including his own uncle and half-brother, and his methods are known for their extreme brutality.19 The list goes on.
  • Different from the past? While the North Korean system has a long record of diplomacy and failed agreements with the United States and South Korea, this is Kim’s first time at the negotiating table. He is young, was educated in part in Switzerland, and is reported to have loosened government control of the country’s economy.20 Kim might be interested in gaining recognition on the world stage as a legitimate leader rather than for missile tests. Any hints of North Korea turning over a new leaf are to be met with deep skepticism, but nevertheless, they should be watched closely.

Moon Jae-in

Even though the summit is between Trump and Kim, Moon is a central player.

  • Predilection for engagement. Moon comes from a political tradition in South Korea that favors more engagement and openness with North Korea. The Panmunjom Declaration that he recently reached with Kim keeps up this tradition of maintaining cordial North-South ties.21
  • Steering the diplomatic ship. Acting as a go-between for Trump and Kim and having the first summit with Kim, Moon is setting the course for U.S.-North Korea talks. As long as North-South diplomacy is ongoing, it will be more difficult for Trump to get in the way of South Korea—perhaps one reason why there’s already agreement for another Kim-Moon summit to happen in Pyongyang in the fall.22 However, this approach is high-risk. Now that Moon has invested personally in North-South diplomacy and U.S.-North Korea diplomacy, any failure could seriously pressurize the alliance and create openings for North Korea and China.
  • In it for the long haul. South Korean officials have been clear that, as opposed to Moon’s two predecessors who met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il late in their tenures, Moon’s meeting is coming soon after taking office, so there is much more potential for lasting progress. Moon appears to be playing a long game.23

Promises and pitfalls of the summit and diplomacy

With such an unprecedented meeting between two unpredictable individuals, the range of potential outcomes is immense.

Potential promises

  • A path to denuclearization of North Korea. The stated goal of the United States is “the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea.24 It would not be unprecedented for the summit to produce an agreement for North Korea to give up its nuclear capabilities, as happened in 1994 and 2005.25 In the best-case scenario, the summit would launch a diplomatic process to establish the details of implementation. Any agreement by North Korea to denuclearize should be met with skepticism until it is implemented, given North Korea’s history of breaking denuclearization agreements and because many analysts also believe that Kim sees nuclear weapons as necessary for regime survival.26
  • A start to diplomacy. Even if Kim does not agree to denuclearization and disarmament, the summit could serve as a jump-start for real negotiations that could: reduce tensions; develop confidence-building measures such as a freeze on missile and nuclear testing; open up channels for crisis communication; and more. A steady diplomatic process could result in a variety of tangible benefits for the United States and its allies—and this seems like a much more likely positive outcome.
  • Gain insight on Kim. A face-to-face meeting with Kim is a gold mine for the United States in terms of learning about Kim and the North Korean leadership system. At the very least, the summit will be an opportunity for U.S. officials to learn much more about how Kim thinks and acts, which would be useful intelligence for the future.

Potential pitfalls

  • The appearance of success without tangible results. It is clear that Kim is looking for recognition from the United States as a nuclear and world power and that Trump is in part looking for “success” in crossing North Korea off his to-do list. The inter-Korean summit had a lot of pomp and circumstance, but the details on implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration were left vague. If the Trump-Kim summit follows that path—as high-level summits are wont to do, with lots of promises but few details—Trump has already given away the prestige of a meeting with the president of the United States. Without the right agreement and implementation process to follow, a summit and diplomatic opening could lead China, South Korea, and others to reduce economic pressure on North Korea without getting anything substantive in return.
  • Trump throws U.S. allies under the bus and plays into the North Korean decoupling strategy. Given Trump’s skepticism over U.S. alliances, when confronted with requests from Kim to reduce—or end—America’s military commitments to South Korea and Japan or to make a deal only addressing intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities, it seems possible that Trump could agree in order to get a win. While Secretary Mattis has said that troops are not “on the table” for this initial round of talks, recent reports revealed that the president almost ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula and that the Pentagon has been ordered to prepare potential troop drawdown options.27
  • A failure that reboots the march to war. It was not long ago that the Trump administration seemed to be beating the drums of war with North Korea. If a summit fails to produce what Trump wants, it’s possible that Trump could use this failure to blame North Korea and return to preventive military action. This will also put pressure on the U.S.-ROK alliance immediately, given Moon’s personal political investment in North-South diplomacy.

What to watch for

The summit itself is likely to be full of pageantry and symbolism to create an air of historic progress. Here are a few things to watch for at the meeting itself:

  • Is there detailed, specific language about denuclearization and what it entails? The exact language around what “denuclearization” means is heavily debated, as North Korea uses the word to refer to mutual arms reductions, while the United States considers it a one-sided term meaning that North Korea gives up its entire arsenal.28 The language used in the summit’s joint statement will need to be heavily scrutinized.
  • Are there real, immediate North Korean concessions? While Kim has said that he will stop nuclear and missile tests, there has been no agreement to do so yet.29 There is also no talk yet of stopping production of fissile materials. These sorts of real concessions would show a genuine interest in progress.
  • How will verification of denuclearization work, and will the North Koreans agree to vigorous international inspection of all necessary sites? Without verification and inspections, any deal on denuclearization is meaningless. Kim has made intimations that he will allow inspectors into North Korea for the dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear facility, but a broader opening to inspectors is necessary to demonstrate a true commitment to denuclearization.30 Agreed-upon mechanisms with a wide scope are necessary to make sure that a deal has teeth.
  • What is Trump willing to give up? Other than already agreeing to a meeting with the president of the United States, there is very little talk of what the United States is willing to concede in return for its demands on North Korea: sanctions relief; humanitarian aid? Any announcements on this will be telling about how willing the United States is to incentivize progress.
  • Do the United States and its allies stay on the same page during negotiations? There are already concerns, especially in Japan, that Trump may cut a deal that does not adequately address the existing threat that North Korea poses to America’s regional allies.31 If Trump does not take their needs into account, this summit will become another piece of evidence on the growing list of ways in which the United States has undermined its alliances.
  • Is there a timeline for follow-up? One of the criticisms of diplomacy with North Korea is that it buys time for North Korea to build its weapons programs, so watch for the United States to push for a fast timeline of implementation.
  • Are the two leaders all smiles, or are controversial topics such as human rights on the agenda? In a November speech at South Korea’s National Assembly, Trump blasted Kim for his human rights violations—yet now Trump is calling him “honorable.”32 Which Trump will show up at the summit?
  • Will the Trump administration have a unified message? Given the divergent views within the administration on diplomacy with North Korea, do national security adviser Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of Defense Mattis agree on what success looks like, and will they stay on message regardless of outcome? Disciplined strategic messaging heading into and after the summit will be essential.

The aftermath

While the aftermath of the summit will largely be determined by the outcomes, there are a number of different things to keep an eye on in the days and weeks that follow:

  • How do regional actors—South Korea, Japan, China, and others—respond? The types of reactions from North Korea’s neighbors could reveal whether the United States coordinated closely with them. In particular, it will be important to keep an eye on any follow-up diplomacy from China, which does not share America’s long-term interests on the Korean Peninsula.
  • Will China and South Korea ease economic sanctions—or their enforcement—before any verifiable North Korean actions have been taken? It’s unlikely that any immediate announcements of sanctions relief will follow a successful summit, but watch closely whether China in particular eases up on sanctions enforcement. There are already reports that China has eased up on sanctions enforcement in recent weeks.33
  • In the United States, it will also be important to watch the congressional response. A number of members of Congress want the Trump administration to keep Congress better informed about the state of play in talks with North Korea.34 Expect those calls to get louder regardless of the summit’s outcome.

Michael Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Abigail Bard is a research assistant for Asia policy for the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.

Endnotes

  1. Arms Control Association, “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy,” available at https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/dprkchron (last accessed May 2018).
  2. Missile Threat: CSIS Missile Defense Project, “Missiles of North Korea,” available at https://missilethreat.csis.org/country/dprk/ (last accessed May 2018); Nuclear Weapons Institute of the DPRK, “DPRK Nuclear Weapons Institute on Successful Test of H-bomb for ICBM,” Press release, September 3, 2017, available at https://kcnawatch.co/newstream/279617/dprk-nuclear-weapons-institute-on-successful-test-of-h-bomb-for-icbm/.
  3. The National Committee on North Korea, “Kim Jong Un’s 2018 New Year’s Address (January 1, 2018),” available at https://www.ncnk.org/node/1427 (last accessed May 2018).
  4. Choe Sang-hun, “Will Kim Jong-un Trade His Nuclear Arsenal to Rebuild Economy?”, The New York Times, April 21, 2018, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/21/world/asia/north-korea-kim-jong-un-nuclear-tests.html.
  5. United Nations, “Security Council Imposes Fresh Sanctions on Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Including Bans on Natural Gas Sales, Work Authorization for Its Nationals,” Press release, September 11, 2017, available at https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc12983.doc.htm; KOTRA, “2016nyeon Bukhanui Daeoae Muyeok Donghyang (2016 Trends in North Korea’s International Trade)” (2017), available at https://news.kotra.or.kr/user/globalBbs/kotranews/11/globalBbsDataView.do?setIdx=249&dataIdx=160099&pageViewType=&column=&search=&searchAreaCd=&searchNationCd=&searchTradeCd=&searchStartDate=&searchEndDate=&searchCategoryIdxs=&searchIndustryCateIdx=&searchItemCode=&searchItemName=&page=1&row=10.
  6. Reuters, “South Korea president Moon Jae In’s main policy pledges,” The Straits Times, May 9, 2017, available at https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/south-korean-presidential-shoo-in-moon-jae-ins-main-policy-pledges.
  7. Kevin Liptak, “Amid crisis, worries of rift between Trump and South Korea grow,” CNN, September 4, 2017, available at https://www.cnn.com/2017/09/04/politics/donald-trump-south-korea/index.html.
  8. Katie Rogers, “Trump Greets 3 American Detainees Freed From North Korea,” The New York Times, May 20, 2018, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/10/us/politics/trump-korea-detainees-pompeo.html.
  9. Donald J. Trump, “4:49 p.m., January 2, 2018,” Twitter, available at https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/948355557022420992.
  10. Paula Hancocks, “Japan and South Korea hit back at Trump’s nuclear comments,” CNN, March 31, 2016, available at https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/31/politics/trump-view-from-south-korea-japan/; TIME Staff, “Read Donald Trump’s Speech on Trade (June 27, 2016),” TIME Magazine, June 28, 2016, available at http://time.com/4386335/donald-trump-trade-speech-transcript/.
  11. John Bolton, “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First,” The Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2018, available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-legal-case-for-striking-north-korea-first-1519862374; Fox News, “Bolton seeks vow from North Korea to abandon nuclear program, as prerequisite for summit,” April 29, 2018, available at http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2018/04/29/bolton-says-kim-must-give-up-nuclear-program-before-any-summit-with-trump.html.
  12. Associated Press, “Pentagon Chief Mattis Stresses Diplomacy in North Korea Crisis,” NBC News, October 27, 2017, available at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/defense-secretary-mattis-accuses-north-korea-threatening-catastrophe-n814876; Dakshayani Shankar, “Mattis: War with North Korea would be ‘catastrophic’,” ABC News, August 10, 2017, available at https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/mattis-war-north-korea-catastrophic/story?id=49146747.
  13. Jung H. Pak, “Kim Jong-un has a maximum pressure and engagement strategy of his own,” Brookings Institution, April 18, 2018, available at https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/04/18/kim-jong-un-has-a-maximum-pressure-and-engagement-strategy-of-his-own/.
  14. 2018 Inter-Korean Summit, “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula,” Press release, April 27, 2018, available at http://www.korea.net/Government/Current-Affairs/National-Affairs/view?subId=641&affairId=656&pageIndex=1&articleId=3354.
  15. Shu Furukawa, “Kim Jong Un iinchou ‘Nihon to taiwa suru youi aru’ (Kim Jong Un is prepared to talk to Japan),” Mainichi Shimbun, April 29, 2018, available at https://mainichi.jp/articles/20180429/k00/00e/030/225000c.
  16. Ben Westcott and James Griffiths, “Kim Jong Un calls for ‘new history’ at Korean peace summit,” CNN, April 17, 2018, available at https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/26/asia/kim-jong-un-moon-jae-in-korea-summit-intl/index.html.
  17. Amnesty International, “North Korea 2017/2018,” available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/north-korea/report-korea-democratic-peoples-republic-of/ (last accessed May 2018).
  18. Human Rights Watch, “North Korea: Events of 2017,” available at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/north-korea (last accessed May 2018).
  19. K.J. Kwon and Ben Westcott, “Kim Jong Un has executed over 300 people since coming to power,” CNN, December 29, 2016, available at https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/29/asia/kim-jong-un-executions/index.html; Alex Diaz, “North Korea’s Kim Jong Un uses terrifyingly creative methods to kill enemies,” Fox News, June 23, 2017, available at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/06/23/north-koreas-kim-jong-un-uses-terrifyingly-creative-methods-to-kill-enemies.html.
  20. Melissa Chan, “Kim Jong Un Is Going Seriously Capitalist,” Vice, September 15, 2017, available at https://www.vice.com/en_id/article/evpdkz/kim-jong-un-is-going-seriously-capitalist.
  21. 2018 Inter-Korean Summit, “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.”
  22. Ibid.
  23. Choe Sang-Hun, “His Predecessors Failed. Can Moon Jae-in Make Peace With North Korea?”, The New York Times, May 3, 2018, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/world/asia/north-korea-moon-trump-kim.html.
  24. DipNote Bloggers, “A Common Goal: The Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization of North Korea,” DipNote, January 17, 2018, available at https://blogs.state.gov/stories/2018/01/17/en/common-goal-complete-verifiable-and-irreversible-denuclearization-north-korea.
  25. U.S. Department of State Archive, “Agreed Framework Between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” October 21, 1994, available at https://2001-2009.state.gov/t/ac/rls/or/2004/31009.htm; CNN International, “Text of N. Korea talks agreement,” September 19, 2005, available at http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/asiapcf/09/19/korea.north.text/.
  26. Wendy Sherman and others, “How to Stop Kim Jong Un,” TIME Magazine, available at http://time.com/north-korea-opinion/ (last accessed May 2018).
  27. Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali, “U.S. troops in South Korea not ‘on the table’ in initial North Korea talks,” Reuters, May 9, 2018, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-usa-military/us-troops-in-south-korea-not-on-the-table-in-initial-north-korea-talks-idUSKBN1IA2M7; Carol E. Lee and others, “Kelly thinks he’s saving U.S. from disaster, calls Trump ‘idiot,’ say White House staffers,” NBC News, May 1, 2018, available at https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/kelly-thinks-he-s-saving-u-s-disaster-calls-trump-n868961; Mark Landler, “Trump Orders Pentagon to Consider Reducing U.S. Forces in South Korea,” The New York Times, May 3, 2018, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/world/asia/trump-troops-south-korea.html.
  28. Duyeon Kim, “The inter-Korean agreement and Pyongyang’s offer to Trump,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 8, 2018, available at https://thebulletin.org/inter-korean-agreement-and-pyongyangs-offer-trump11590.
  29. Korean Central News Agency, “3rd Plenary Meeting of 7th C.C., WPK Held in Presence of Kim Jong Un,” April 21, 2018, available at https://kcnawatch.co/newstream/1524400229-922732211/3rd-plenary-meeting-of-7th-c-c-wpk-held-in-presence-of-kim-jong-un/.
  30. Kang Jin-kyu, “Kim Jong-un promised to invite inspectors to shutting down of nuclear test site,” Korea JoongAng Daily, April 29, 2018, available at http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=3047510.
  31. David Nakamura and Anna Fifield, “Trump, Abe to meet as U.S.-Japan relationship shows strains over North Korea, trade,” The Washington Post, April 14, 2018, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-abe-to-meet-as-us-japan-relationship-shows-strains-over-north-korea-trade/2018/04/14/4de8e202-3f2f-11e8-8d53-eba0ed2371cc_story.html?utm_term=.83e90eeb8e9a.
  32. BBC News, “Donald Trump warns North Korea: ‘Do not try us’,” November 8, 2017, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41910167; Zachary Cohen and Kevin Liptak, “Trump praises Kim Jong Un as honorable, refuses to explain why,” CNN, April 25, 2018, available at https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/24/politics/trump-kim-jong-un-honorable/index.html.
  33. Jane Perlez, “China Moves to Steady Ties with North Korea Before Trump-Kim Meeting,” The New York Times, May 3, 2018, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/world/asia/china-north-korea-meeting.html.
  34. Letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others, April 30, 2018, available at https://www.warren.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2018.04.30%20North%20Korea%20Letter.pdf.