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Dick Cheney calls on Trump to resist temptation for a bad deal with N. Korea

SEOUL | Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned in a major speech here Friday that the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “highly skilled at extracting concessions in exchange for nothing,” and cautioned U.S. negotiators against “repeating past mistakes” as President Trump heads toward a second summit with Mr. Kim later this month.

While Mr. Cheney said the 36-year-old Mr. Kim is “a different dictator” than his father and grandfather were — asserting that “we have to be open to the possibility” the young leader is serious about denuclearizing — he called on the Trump administration to be mindful of pursuing a deal “merely for the sake of having a deal and regardless of whether it actually serves the ultimate objective.”

“This can easily happen amid the suspense and anticipation of a big summit,” the 78-year-old former vice president said. “There’s always a temptation to make one more concession just for an agreement to be announced. Our team needs to resist that temptation, keeping the focus on the only objective it has, it has to be the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear weapons.”

The warning, leveled up before an audience of current and former political and religious leaders gathered in the South Korean capital for a summit calling for peace with North Korea, comes at a delicate moment in the Trump administration’s evolving push for diplomacy with Pyongyang, less than three weeks out from the second Trump-Kim summit.

U.S. special envoy Stephen Biegun, who spent part of this week on a rare visit to the North Korean capital — reportedly sorting out logistical details for the summit slated to occur Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam — returned Friday to Seoul, where he is expected to brief South Korean officials on the preparations, according to the South’s Yonhap News Agency.

With regional experts warning that time is increasingly short for serious pre-negotiations to unfold before Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim meet, wariness has mounted that the North Korean leader aims to strike a deal directly with Mr. Trump, seeking interim sanctions relief in exchange for something less than a total dismantlement of the North’s nuclear arsenal.

Mr. Trump’s top advisers have said they are committed to keeping sanctions pressure on North Korea until it irreversibly denuclearizes, but private analysts have expressed concern the president may do an end-run around his advisors and by conceding some form of relief if Mr. Kim agrees to abandon certain ballistic missiles that pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.

Mr. Cheney’s assertion that the administration must resist the temptation to make concessions reflects wariness among some in Washington, such as Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former CIA Korea deputy division chief Bruce Klingner, who has argued Mr. Trump was “outplayed” by Mr. Kim at their first summit last June in Singapore.

The president has dismissed the criticism, stressing that Pyongyang hasn’t conducted a nuclear weapon or ballistic missile test since the summit. But he faced a new challenge last week from current U.S. intelligence officials, who wrote their annual worldwide threat assessment that North Korea remains “unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.”

Mr. Cheney suggested Friday that the administration could benefit by studying former President Ronald Reagan’s handling of Cold War-era negotiations with the former Soviet Union.

“[President Reagan] could see the difference between a deal that won him praise and a deal that met his objective,” Mr. Cheney said, adding that the Soviet Union’s demise was ultimately aided by America having “a president who couldn’t be diverted from his objected and who always operated from a position of strength.”

“Similar determination is needed now in negotiations with a regime highly skilled at extracting concessions in exchange for nothing,” the former vice president said. “They make agreements, they pocket the benefits of those agreements and then they continue on with their weapons program,” he said. “That’s how we got to where we are today and the last thing our side needs are more preemptive concessions.”

However, Mr. Cheney, who served as George W. Bush’s vice president from 2001 to 2009 and has long been criticized by the left in Washington as a war hawk, went on to add that — even after decades of North Korean cheating — the prospect of a breakthrough with Mr. Kim may still be very real.

“A moment like this, we don’t want to get locked into every past assumption,” Mr. Cheney said. “North Korea isn’t any better than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but we are dealing with a different dictator and it is conceivable that he approaches these negotiations making [a] better assessment of long term risks and rewards that has guided that regime so far. Not likely, but we have to be open to that possibility, and the best strategy, in either event, is to leave no doubt about our own intentions.”

‘Religious freedom’ in N. Korea

Mr. Cheney was among several former U.S. political figures, including former Republican congressmen Ted Poe of Texas, John Doolittle of California, Dan Burton of Indiana, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who appeared Friday at the opening of the Universal Peace Federation’s World Summit 2019 in Seoul.

In addition to the presence of South Korean lawmakers and current and former leaders from dozens of nations, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Paraguay, Kosovo and Niger to name a few, the gathering was unique for the sheer diversity of faiths represented, featuring prayers for peace by prominent Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and other religious leaders.

The event was headlined with a speech from Hak Ja Han Moon, widow of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and the leader of the Unification movement that grew from the Unification Church the Rev. Moon founded in 1954 — a year after war between North and South Korea was frozen by an U.S.-backed armistice.

“Representatives of many nations and faiths are gathered here to ensure that world peace can be realized. We stand in an important role as peacemakers,” said Mrs. Moon. “We must also remember that though our efforts to bring peace are critical, however only with a firm reliance on God will our efforts bring lasting peace.”

Mrs. Moon has led the Unification movement since a few years before the 2012 death of the Rev. Moon, whose ministry grew from a tiny, embattled church in his native South Korea to a global spiritual movement and an affiliated commercial empire comprising real estate, manufacturing and agricultural operations, and media properties including The Washington Times.

Mr. Gingrich, who served as House Speaker from 1995 to 1999, praised the gathering in Seoul, stressing during his own speech on Friday that “it was religious leaders, led by Pope John Paul II which led to dramatic change in the Soviet empire, starting with three million people coming to mass in Warsaw in 1979.”

“Religious leaders have the potential to arouse, communicate, educate,” said Mr. Gingrich, 79, who asserted they can impact developments relating to North Korea. “We don’t just want a denuclearized North Korea,” he said. “We want a North Korea with religious freedom.”

‘An absolute commitment’

Mr. Gingrich spoke of his own father who fought in the Korean war, saying it was “very emotional” to visit South Korea in present times because of the nation’s economic and political prowess. “When I look at what South Korea has become, my father, were he still here, would find it hard to believe,” he said. “This is a great achievement of the human spirit.”

He emphasized the importance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance going forward, even though concern has swirled recently amid a dispute between the Trump administration and Seoul over how much the South Korean government is willing to pay annually for the ongoing presence of some 30,000 American troops positioned in the nation.

While the dispute was resolved in recent days, months of disagreement on the matter had prompted U.S. and South Korean officials to privately express concern that the situation was leading to perceptions in North Korea of weakness in the alliance between Washington and Seoul.

Mr. Gingrich said that since the early-1950s, the U.S. has “stood firmly for the defense of the people of South Korea.” 

“We today stand firmly for the defense of the people of South Korea,” he added, asserting that Mr. Trump heads into his second summit with Mr. Kim bringing “an absolute commitment for the defense of freedom on the Korean peninsula and a willingness to do whatever it takes to ensure that South Korea remains free and safe and prosperous.”

Mr. Cheney, meanwhile, stressed the importance of U.S. military alliances more broadly. “We must understand above all that our partnerships and military alliances in this region can never have been more important and the security commitments of the United States will never be compromised or broken,” he said

“In Asia, in Europe and places in between, America has held back threats and stood by our friends. For many millions of people, generations of peace have come to feel like the normal, natural state of affairs, and yet that is only because of the structures of security that we built with our allies and have defended at great cost to ourselves,” he said. “It’s not a perfect record. But it is a record more impressive and admirable than that of any other great power on this earth.”

“Anyone who doubts how critical American engagement is today, need only to consider the array of alternatives,” the former vice president said.

With regard to South Korea, he added that the “alliance has endured through many decades for a few simple reasons, beginning of course with shared values and mutual trust in every instance. Formed in the bitter circumstances of war, it has been confirmed over 65 years that have seen South Korea become a preeminent democracy and a major economic power.”

“On the strategic map, we in the United States have long counted on South Korea as a stable, forward-looking, responsible force in a region where that good influence is always needed,” Mr. Cheney said. “Look at South Korea today. It prosperous, peaceful and a free nation and it stands as one of the true democratic achievements of modern times.”

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