Experienced North Korea watchers scoffed at U.S. President Donald Trump’s assertion after his Singapore summit with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un that he had ended the North Korean threat. Their skepticism was born out last weekend after talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, ended with widely divergent assessments of their progress. While some ask if the two governments are even talking about the same thing, seasoned observers see time-tested North Korean tactics. The reality check is valuable. It is a reminder that this will be a long and difficult process.
Pompeo was in Pyongyang for talks to put meat on the bones of the summit agreement reached by Trump and Kim in their June 12 summit in Singapore. The summit declaration was vague, noting only the two governments would establish “new U.S.-DPRK relations,” build “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” denuclearize the peninsula and return the remains of U.S. soldiers who died during the Korean War. Pompeo had hoped to get agreement on the meaning of “denuclearization” and set a timetable for progress.
Pompeo called the two days of meetings “productive”; he thought the two sides had made progress. Reportedly, the two sides set up working groups to address various issues, including the destruction of Pyongyang’s missile engine-testing facility. He added that the two sides would meet on or near July 12 to discuss return of the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War. North Korea responded with a broadside, calling the U.S. focus on denuclearization “unilateral and gangster-like” and said the U.S. attitude toward the talks was “regrettable.” Pompeo dismissed the complaints, noting that “if those requests were gangster-like, the world is a gangster.”
He is right: Demands for denuclearization are supported by the U.N. Security Council and North Korea, in prior negotiations, had conceded that goal for the peninsula. This disagreement validates the core concern that critics had of the Singapore summit: There is no meeting of the minds on the meaning of denuclearization. The United States, Japan, South Korea and like-minded governments want Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions and dismantle its nuclear arsenal. North Korea, however, frames its denuclearization efforts within the context of regional nuclear disarmament.
In its narrowest interpretation, the North will only give up its nuclear weapons when the U.S. has withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula and ended its commitment to defend South Korea. A more expansive version of this argument demands the withdrawal of U.S. forces — and its nuclear umbrella — from Northeast Asia. The broadest possible interpretation dubs North Korea a nuclear power like the nuclear weapons states legally recognized by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and insists that Pyongyang will only give up its arsenal when the other five nuclear powers do so.
North Korea is angered by U.S. insistence on complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID), a term that first gained prominence during the six-party talks and now represents the gold standard for ending a country’s nuclear ambitions. Reportedly, the U.S has adopted a new term, “the final fully verified denuclearization,” as a way of reducing North Korean sensitivities and signaling the Trump team’s new approach. U.S. officials argue the change in language has no effect on the goal. Judging from the North Korea reaction to last week’s talks, the shift in language has had no effect.
After the talks, Pompeo went to Tokyo to meet with Japanese officials and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and brief them on the discussions. He reassured Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he and Trump pressed the case of Japan’s abductees and said that peace and stability required the “settlement of the outstanding issues of concern surrounding North Korea, including the nuclear, missile and abduction issues.” Pompeo, Kang and Foreign Minister Taro Kono expressed their “unwavering commitment to the continued strengthening of our trilateral cooperation toward the common goal of North Korea’s complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement.” That cooperation is ever more important when Trump seems ready to make spontaneous commitments — such as the suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises that could affect Japan’s national security.
Pyongyang sees the four goals laid out in the Singapore summit declaration as a sequence: The U.S. and North Korea establish new relations, which leads to a peace regime, which in turn facilitates denuclearization. Washington, like virtually the rest of the world, considers denuclearization to be the key: Without it, nothing else is possible. That difference is a yawning divide, but it is not unbridgeable. Success will depend on patience and perseverance, and continuing attention and commitment from the highest reaches of the U.S. government.