Commentary Magazine

The Theater of North Korean Denuclearization

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

It wasn’t all that long ago that we were all on the same page when it came to North Korea. Time was not on our side, the thinking went. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and, to a lesser extent, the People’s Republic of China needed only to stall until Pyongyang had developed a reliable nuclear deterrent and delivery system. It was the West that had to act fast. But after President Donald Trump’s sojourn to Singapore, the urgency of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula dissipated. The president’s most unfailing supporters suddenly adopted a wait-and-see approach; after all, this wasn’t the end of the standoff but the beginning of the end (as if calling a presidential-level summit the “beginning” of anything wasn’t an outrageous admission against interest).

Well, today it seems the Trump administration’s patience is wearing thin. This weekend, National Security Advisor John Bolton stressed that the Trump administration seeks to impose an ambitious timeline for full and verifiable denuclearization on the Kim regime. That’s a welcome change of rhetoric, but at whom is it aimed? Disconcertingly, the audience for this aggressive new pitch may not be in Pyongyang but in Washington.

Bolton said over the weekend that he anticipates the proper disarmament regime could dismantle the North Korean nuclear program in a single year. The first step toward achieving that aspiration would be for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to return from his visit to North Korea this week with a concrete set of pledges and declarations, among them the full disclosure of DPRK’s weapons and missiles stockpiles and any facilities related to their manufacture. Speaking with the New York Times, a “former government official” even helpfully advised the North Korean government to disclose the existence of a highly secretive uranium enrichment facility, only recently revealed to the public, “or watch negotiations fall apart.” Pyongyang surely appreciated the reminder.

This secret uranium enrichment facility is not the only up-and-running site related to North Korea’s nuclear program despite the chummy display in Singapore three weeks ago. Over the course of the last week, information provided by current and former government officials and independent North Korea watchdog organizations have confirmed the existence of a third previously unknown and unnamed enrichment site and the expansion of North Korea’s known enrichment facility at Yongbyon. Sources have also informed reporters that North Korea is producing more road-mobile ballistic-missile launch vehicles and solid-fuel missile engines. Respectively, those technologies make the detection of missiles by satellite harder and launches faster.

These revelations do not represent the violation of any kind of denuclearization agreement because no such agreement exists. They do, however, suggest that the United States was about to be embarrassed by North Korea in the likely event that the latter submitted a less-than-candid disclosure of existing weapons and facilities. “The sheer number of leaks on nuclear activity makes it look like an authorized attempt to get that intel out into the public sphere,” one North Korea expert told the BBC. If so, that would suggest that the U.S. is not content to allow North Korea to release its own disclosure statement and check that against existing Western intelligence. Shepherding the Kim regime toward a more thorough disclosure would, however, shield Pyongyang from the consequences of its own bad faith, which raises a disturbing question: Has Washington already blinked?

Axios reported on Monday that the White House is prepared to dangle a new carrot in front of Kim Jong-un in the form of a second summit with Donald Trump, but this one would take place on American soil in September. That concession would supposedly be tethered to measurable progress in the dismantling of DPRK’s missile and nuclear weapons program. But the Singapore Summit, too, was a substantial concession to the Kim regime—Pyongyang had sought such a meeting for decades—and North Korea’s only concessions had nothing to do with the country’s nuclear program. What would the prospect of a second summit achieve if North Korea is already inspiring such little confidence in its willingness to be forthright with American negotiators?

From a cascade of disclosures involving North Korean nuclear technology to new details of what a denuclearization regime might look like and how Pyongyang would attempt to undermine it, the flurry of information recently published in the press makes you wonder what American policymakers were doing in the three months leading up to the theatrics in Singapore. It was thought that this event, which was at one point canceled entirely as a result of North Korean foot-dragging, yielded only a propaganda coup for the monster in Pyongyang, but perhaps the Trump administration has become equally enamored with the diplomatic process. If administration officials are guiding Pyongyang through what should be an adversarial process and are considering allowing Pyongyang to keep its nuclear bombs until the final stage of disarmament—a stage that U.S. intelligence estimates suggest will never arrive—it’s hard to avoid concluding that the Trump White House has fallen into a familiar diplomatic trap. They’ve prioritized the diplomatic process over what the process was ostensibly supposed to achieve.

The president’s defenders will resort to familiar counterpoints: These are early days in a long process; a presidential-level summit was only the beginning; and, of course, critics of these diplomatic overtures will only be satisfied by war. But no one who truly cares about the dissolution of North Korea’s nuclear program should be happy with this process so far. Those who judge progress toward a denuclearized Pyongyang by how it makes Donald Trump look at any given moment may, however, gauge success according to a slightly less rigorous standard.

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