The United States has announced that President Donald Trump will hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late February. The news follows separate meetings between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The growing gap between those two sets of talks — denuclearization discussions with the U.S. and Pyongyang’s warming relations with its neighbors — bodes ill for efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. There is a very real danger that Trump, eager to say that he has solved the North Korean threat, will settle for an empty agreement that allows Pyongyang to claim that it is a de facto nuclear weapon state. That outcome must be avoided at all costs.
It has been seven months since Trump and Kim held their historic meeting in Singapore, after which the U.S. president declared that he had ended the North Korean nuclear threat. While nuclear and missile tests have halted, there are regular intelligence reports that the North continues to upgrade its nuclear and missile capabilities. The 2019 U.S. Ballistic Missile Review notes that North Korea “continues to pose an extraordinary threat and the United States must remain vigilant.”
Follow-up talks between senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and their North Korean counterparts have been fitful at best. North Korea has refused to provide the nuclear declaration that is the starting point of any denuclearization process. Pompeo has been stood up by Kim on at least one trip to Pyongyang — the North Korean leader visited a potato farm instead — and Stephen Biegun, the U.S. envoy to North Korea, has had little success arranging meetings with North Korean counterparts. Instead, Pyongyang has sent senior officials such as Kim Yong Chol, a former head of the intelligence service who is Pyongyang’s lead interlocutor with the U.S., to Washington. The North Korean official visited Trump last week to discuss the next summit.
North Korea has made Trump its preferred diplomatic partner, calculating that he has little appetite for the details of denuclearization and instead prefers the theater of summitry. His disdain for preparation, hazy familiarity with the specifics and his thirst for “victories” all favors Kim, who relentlessly pursues his family ambition to gain international recognition — not only of the Kim dynasty but its nuclear arsenal as well.
Meanwhile, Kim has forged strong ties with Moon, and inter-Korean relations are moving forward. At the same time, North Korea’s relations with China are increasingly warm. Indeed, the chief restraint on additional progress in both cases is the U.S. insistence on denuclearization before the lifting of additional sanctions, which impedes closer economic ties between North Korea and its neighbors. Seoul and Beijing have joined Pyongyang in calling for the U.S. to do more to break the stalemate.
The White House insists that it will maintain “pressure and sanctions on North Korea until we see fully and verified denuclearization.” North Korea counters that those sanctions are proof that Washington has not changed its policy of hostility and insists that the U.S. remove the sanctions as a sign of its sincerity in creating a new relationship between the two countries. A South Korean spokesperson said that Seoul expects the upcoming meeting “to be a turning point for building up permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
The chief concern is what Trump will offer to maintain momentum in his effort to “solve” the North Korean problem. At the Singapore summit, he surprised many by suspending U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. This time, he could offer a peace agreement or an official declaration of the end of the Korean War.
There are also fears that Trump could trade a North Korean commitment to forego development of long-range missiles for a reduced U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula. While that sounds far-fetched, Washington and Seoul are already engaged in acrimonious negotiations over South Korea’s contributions to the U.S. military presence. Trump has long made clear his belief that its allies exploit U.S. security commitments and free-ride. The resignation letter of Secretary of Defense James Mattis referred to those views and suggested that the president was prepared to turn them into policy.
While a reduction or complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula would be a threat to Japanese security, equally alarming would be tacit acceptance of North Korean nuclear capabilities. The foundation of the Japan-U.S. security alliance has been Washington’s determination to prevent nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia and a clear commitment to defend its allies against all threats. A trade that permits Pyongyang to maintain some of its nuclear arsenal is an implicit acceptance of the de-coupling of U.S. security from that of its allies. It must be avoided at all costs. Trump must insist on genuine progress in North Korean denuclearization, not the mere illusion of such.