US President Donald Trump has said he will rely on his instincts when he meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore Tuesday. But without a trusted scientific advisor in his team, some fear gut feelings alone may not be enough.
Shortly after arriving in Singapore over the weekend, the US president took the emotional temperature in the sweltering, tropical island-nation and tweeted that there was “excitement in the air”.
But while there may have been anticipation in the air, there has been precious little detailed prep work on the ground. Absent any preconditions, deal to be signed or even a National Security Council meeting to plan for Tuesday’s summit, Trump appears to be relying heavily on instincts and emotions for the meeting with his North Korean counterpart. “It’s about attitude,” he told reporters last week.
Analysts however argue that when it comes to national security issues, particularly regarding nuclear weapons, it would be better if Trump relies on science.
But without a White House science advisor or senior official trained in nuclear science in his team, Trump could be at a technical disadvantage when it comes to discussing denuclearisation with the North Koreans, experts fear.
More than a year into his presidency, Trump has still not hired a senior science and technology advisor, a position created during World War II to help the US president on critical scientific and technological issues. For the first time in 75 years, the White House Office of Science and Technology does not have a leader, an absence that worries former US presidential scientific and technological advisor John Holdren as Trump prepares to meet Kim in Singapore.
“Normally, you would have a senior science and technology advisor to the president, someone he knows and whose judgment he trusts — and someone who understands the intricacies of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon facilities — to be sure that President Trump is not outmaneuvered in the discussions of what denuclearisation would mean for North Korea, how it would be verified, what it would consist of, and so on,” said Holdren in an interview with the BBC on Sunday.
An assault on science in the administration
Holdren was the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology under former US president Barack Obama, a position that enabled him to see the president “an average of twice a week. Some weeks, I saw him five or six times”, he told the Japanese daily, The Asahi Shimbun, last month.
But while Obama had a keen interest in science and its policy implications, Trump has been accused of marginalising science, risking not just US, but global security.
A number of scientific advisory posts in the Trump administration have not been filled or simply scrapped. These include chief scientists at the State and Agriculture departments. Scientific advisory committees at the Interior Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as the Food and Drug Administration have been disbanded. There is also a high level of attrition at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where employee morale is particularly low, according to Holdren, following a concerted assault by Trump to reshape the agency.
Experienced North Korean team
Given the critical nature of nuclear arms policy and the unstructured nature of the pre-summit planning for Tuesday’s meeting though, many former diplomats are concerned about the lack of trusted technical expertise available to the US team in Singapore. Their concerns are heightened by the fact that the North Koreans are known to arrive at nuclear talks with a team made up of senior nuclear experts with extensive experience in diplomatic negotiations.
“The North Korean nuclear scientists are very, very competent and I would expect them to advise their government well,” Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico and an expert on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, told the New York Times.
Holdren concurred with Hecker’s assessment. “It would be very surprising if Kim Jong Un were to come to a meeting without a senior official with a science and technology background, I would be quite shocked if he was so unprepared,” he told the BBC.
‘Some pretty deep trouble’
The predictably unpredictable nature of Trump diplomatic — as well as undiplomatic – dealings has also rattled experts.
“One of the worries is that President Trump has been known mercurially to change his agenda at the very last moment,” said Holdren. “Were he to get into details of what denuclearisation means and what would be required to verify it in North Korea, in the absence of capable technical advice, he can definitely get in some pretty deep trouble.”
With just hours to go before the Trump-Kim handshake, scheduled for Tuesday at around 9amSingapore time, the White House had already announced a “very last minute” agenda change.
While Trump was originally scheduled to fly back to Washington on Wednesday morning, a White House statement issued on the eve of the meeting said the US president had shortened his stay in Singapore. Trump is now set to leave the island-nation at around 8pm on Tuesday after a day of meetings with Kim.
Little more than a photo-op
The almost 15-hour reduction in Trump’s schedule increased the likelihood that the much-touted Singapore meeting will be little more than a photo-op, kicking the can of any substantive progress on denuclearisation in the Korean peninsula down the road.
Following a day of frantic preliminary talks between US and North Korean aides on Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to lower expectations for the upcoming “historic” meeting between the US and North Korean leaders.
The US was prepared to take action to provide North Korea with “sufficient certainty” that denuclearisation “is not something that ends badly for them”, Pompeo told reporters in Singapore.
But the former CIA director who assumed the role of top US diplomat barely two months ago was notably short on details. “I can only say this,” Pompeo said. “We are prepared to take what will be security assurances that are different, unique, to what America’s been willing to provide previously.”
Pyongyang’s position on denuclearisation has historically been that the US should remove its “nuclear umbrella” protecting South Korea and Japan. Washington, of course, is unlikely to entertain that demand, and on the North Korean side, there’s deep scepticism that Kim will give up on his country’s hard-won nuclear weapons. The fear then was that any nuclear concessions made by the North Koreans in Singapore would simply not be followed through after the summit.
Given those fears, and the lack of technical expertise in the US delegation in Singapore, a quick photo-op summit with little teeth in the final agreement — if indeed there is one at the end of Tuesday — is likely to be the least offensive result.
“President Trump has indicated that he intends this just to be a “get acquainted” or initial step in a multistep process and that’s probably appropriate,” said Holdren.
In which case, emotion — and not science – may just be enough to hold up the US bargaining chips. Trump has indicated that he “will know, just [by] my touch, my feel” how to assess Kim’s nuclear plan. Under the circumstances, that would be all he needs.
This article provided by NewsEdge.