By Phillip Orchard
U.S. President Donald Trump canceled next month’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on May 24, citing the “tremendous anger and open hostility” of recent North Korean rhetoric. (Of course, North Korea says angry and openly hostile things all the time; it would be more suspicious if it suddenly stopped.) Trump later said the summit might still happen with unspecified “constructive steps” from Kim. But the U.S. and North Korean positions on the North’s nuclear program are still miles apart, and the U.S. simply wasn’t going to get much of what it wanted in the June 12 summit in Singapore. It’s not clear if the White House ever truly thought otherwise – or, if so, why it did.
Measures of Good Faith
It’s possible that things were communicated behind the scenes all along that led the U.S. to take the North’s willingness to give up its nukes seriously – and that the North has indeed done an about-face. This is the story coming out of the White House. Earlier this week, Trump suggested that relaxed pressure from China on the North had led Pyongyang to harden its position.
But nothing the North has done publicly since Kim’s New Year’s speech has suggested an actual willingness to hand over its nukes. More important, the North has long seen nuclear weapons as the ultimate way to keep the U.S. and hostile outside powers at bay for good. There’s little that China or international sanctions pressure or maximalist rhetoric can do to change Pyongyang’s thinking on this. Empty U.S. reassurances about regime security aren’t going to do the trick – even if Trump, rather oddly, hadn’t warned Kim this week that failure to give up his nukes would lead him to the same fate as Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who did surrender his nuclear weapons program.
True, the North has refrained from conducting missile or nuclear tests since November. It released U.S. prisoners. Kim said nice things to South Korean President Moon Jae-in about heading down the long road to reunification and hinted at an interest in economic liberalization. Kim echoed his father and grandfather in reiterating that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was the enduring dream of the Kim dynasty. Just two hours before Trump’s announcement, the North even blew up its nuclear test site – or at least appeared to do so (Western journalists attended the event, but inspectors haven’t been allowed in). But these are merely measures of good faith intended to demonstrate a willingness to sit down with its great adversary – as nuclear powers on equal footing. They do not signal a softening of Pyongyang’s position on its nuclear program.
Ultimately, when the U.S. and North Korea talk about denuclearization, they are talking about two very different things. In the Trump administration’s view, denuclearization needs to be complete, verifiable and irreversible – and, importantly, completed by the end of Trump’s first term. According to U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, every one of the North’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, along with its associated equipment, plus its ballistic missiles, must be dismantled and shipped to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee before North Korea gets anything tangible in exchange. The U.S. even wants North Korea’s nuclear scientists to leave the country. To North Korea, denuclearization is more of a long-term goal on par with global disarmament. In the meantime, the most it may be willing to compromise on is the size and shape of its missile and warhead arsenal.
A Position of Strength
North Korea almost certainly believes that it is bargaining from a position of strength. To start, even if its missile arsenal is not yet reliable enough to guarantee an ability to strike a target in the U.S., North Korea is effectively a nuclear power. Despite its freeze on missile and nuclear tests and the apparent destruction of its favored nuclear test site, it already has large stockpiles of nuclear weapons and missiles that, if nothing else, can fly far enough to reach airspace over the United States. And though it has yet to demonstrate mastery over intercontinental ballistic missile re-entry technology – the trickiest part of missile development – the missile program is far enough along to make the U.S. think twice about an attack on the North. In the nuclear game, deterrence doesn’t hinge on what’s probable, just what’s possible. This, along with its entrenched artillery positions along the demilitarized zone that threaten more than half of South Korea’s population, may be enough for the North to think it has the U.S. beat on the military question.
In addition, in the North’s view, Trump backed himself into a political corner when he agreed to buck precedent and sit down with Kim face-to-face – long an elusive goal of the North – before it had made any substantive concessions. The North (with ample help from Seoul) dangled an opportunity, even if a wholly insincere one, for Trump to do what none of his predecessors could: bring Pyongyang to heel. Since the North was never going to hand over its nukes willingly, this meant Trump would be faced with the prospect of either coming home empty-handed or claiming victory by agreeing to a weak deal – likely involving a freeze on ICBMs and perhaps a protracted, largely symbolic process toward denuclearization.
In other words, Pyongyang saw a chance to get de facto recognition of its status as a nuclear power, plus concessions on short-range missiles and the U.S. troop presence on the peninsula that would weaken Washington’s alliance with South Korea and Japan (something China wholeheartedly supports). If, as turned out to be the case, the U.S. came to terms with its poor position and backed out of the summit, the North would be no worse off than before.
Its position may even be improved. The North, after all, has lived up to its pledges ahead of the summit, however symbolic they may have been. It’s keen to drag out the diplomatic process and demonstrate that it can act as a rational and responsible nuclear power – or at least enough that countries like China and South Korea may want to start normalizing ties with (and easing sanctions on) Pyongyang. Meanwhile, whatever the strategic logic that led the U.S. to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, doing so without even trying to prove that Tehran had violated the deal has only reinforced perceptions of the U.S. as a capricious power. Backing out of the summit on grounds that North Korean rhetoric had become too bellicose won’t help in this regard.
The U.S. is leaving the door open for the summit to resume and searching for leverage to improve its negotiating position. But its options haven’t really changed. It can decide the costs of war are worth bearing and try to deal with the nuclear issue by force. It can conduct a limited strike to demonstrate resolve and call the North’s bluff on a counterattack, whatever the risks of escalation. It can agree to a weak deal that would effectively cement Pyongyang’s nuclear status. It can kick the can down the road indefinitely and hope the regime eventually collapses under its own weight. None of these are good options, but that’s why the issue hasn’t been resolved before now.
Past U.S. presidents declined to meet with North Korean leaders because doing so would legitimize a tyrannical regime without getting anything substantive in return. Real concessions would require a tortuous process built on incremental gains, and the North has never proved a particularly credible negotiating partner. It’s understandable why the Trump administration wouldn’t want to head down a familiar road littered with failures. But there’s no reason to think it can just skip ahead to the finish line, either.