Call it, at best, a trust-building exercise—at worst, a ransom payment—but it was clear by July that Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un yielded no tangible progress toward denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. In response to justified criticism of these talks, the Trump administration set an ambitious timeline to neutralize the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. National Security Adviser John Bolton indicated in an interview that it was possible “to dismantle all of their WMD and ballistic-missile programs in a year,” but only if Pyongyang had made the strategic decision to work with the West. It is obvious now that they have not made that decision. And yet, North Korea’s recalcitrance has not occasioned any reciprocal hardening of the Trump administration’s position. On the contrary, the only party in these negotiations that seems to be bending is the White House.
Shortly after the Trump-Kim summit, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did make some perfunctory effort to appear open to confidence-building measures. According to satellite imagery analysis, Pyongyang started dismantling a ballistic-missile engine testing site shortly after the Singapore summit. That was lauded as a real step in the direction of slowing the DPRK’s progress toward a delivery vehicle that could threaten the American mainland. It was all for show.
According to a subsequent analysis of satellite imagery reviewed by the New York Times, DPRK has continued to maintain or make improvements on more than a dozen secret sites that could be used to produce conventional and nuclear-capable missile technology. The president’s response to this shocking development was to insist that it was no big deal. “We are in no rush,” Trump said at a press conference last week. In a subsequent tweet, Trump revealed that “we fully know” about these secret sites. They are “nothing new” and nothing “out of the normal” is occurring at them, he added, as if that was reassuring. Indeed, Washington surely also knows that North Korea never stopped producing road-mobile ballistic-missile launch vehicles and solid-fuel missile engines, but admitting that would foreclose on the prospect of disarmament anytime soon to say nothing of within just 12 months.
In his July interview, Bolton also acknowledged that the first step toward a serious agreement with North Korea would be to secure a “full disclosure” and complete inventory of Pyongyang’s chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and related production facilities. A “former government official” even went so far as to reveal to the New York Times the existence of a highly secretive uranium enrichment facility that U.S. negotiators needed to see Pyongyang reveal or else they could “watch negotiations fall apart.” The North Koreans appear to have rejected this helpful offer to hold their hands through the disclosure process.
In October, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepared to make his fourth visit to the North Korean capital, officials in Washington reiterated their demand to see Pyongyang inventory its nuclear program. But upon Pompeo’s return, it was clear that he had not received requisite disclosures from his counterparts related to nuclear weapons, missiles, launchers, production facilities, or storage sites. And now, it seems the White House is dropping its long-standing demand to see any inventories from North Korea.
In an interview with NBC News, Vice President Mike Pence insisted that it was “absolutely imperative” for North Korea to disclose its capabilities, but that was something that the administration hoped Donald Trump would receive following a second summit with Kim Jong-un. If the first summit between the leader of this murderous criminal regime and the leader of the free world was a necessary precondition to begin the ambitious work of denuclearizing the Peninsula but one that resulted in no tangible progress, what does the White House think it will achieve by being fooled twice?
The Trump administration has budged and budged, granting the North Koreans concessions that they have sought for decades, but the North Koreans have consented only to allow international inspectors back into the country—inspectors who can be misdirected, manipulated, or simply thwarted at Pyongyang’s will. Why on earth would anyone in North Korea think that the president is seriously interested in walking away from the negotiating table?
The Trump administration seems to think it can have it both ways. Iran’s refusal to surrender a secret cache of intelligence related to its nuclear program was, in the words of Sec. Pompeo, indicative of the fact that the nuclear accords were “built on lies.” That opacity was evidence that Iran never intended to fully denuclearize and planned on restarting its weapons program at the nearest convenient opportunity. That assessment is likely correct, but what does that say about North Korea’s refusal to cooperate with Washington’s demands? And at what point does Pyongyang’s double-dealing yield anything more from this administration than economic sanctions—sanctions that North Korea has a demonstrated capacity to absorb?
Trump is sending mixed signals by simultaneously punishing Pyongyang for its mendacious behavior while also rewarding Kim with summitry. That must end. If the president is serious about denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula before the end of his first term, he’s going to need to adopt a policy that could feasibly achieve that outcome. The present charade will only make the military option a likelier outcome.