BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA – With the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un coming up, I was invited to speak last Wednesday at a conference at the International Christian University in Tokyo on North Korea. It was an excellent event, focusing explicitly on cutting through the grandiose rhetoric from the United States and South Korean presidents about North Korea’s denuclearization to determine what the North has actually done since detente started in January 2018.
The short answer is very little, and that is also likely to be the case after the Trump-Kim meeting in Hanoi next week. This is unfortunate, and there is much blame to go around. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has wildly over-hyped his outreach to the North as a “new era of peace” in Korean affairs.
Meanwhile Trump has shown his customary lack of focus and discipline in dealing with a complex issue. He announced the Hanoi meeting less than a month before it is to occur, all but ensuring that nothing substantive comes from it because there is simply not enough time to work out the many complicated issues of the U.S.-North Korean relationship.
But to be fair to Trump and Moon, the real reason denuclearization is very unlikely is that it ultimately makes good sense for North Korea to have nuclear weapons. We do not want the North to have them, of course, but from Pyongyang’s perspective, nuclear weapons are a great idea.
Nuclear weapons are so powerful that they provide excellent deterrence and defense against foreign opponents. For a small state like North Korea, surrounded by enemies and generally disliked by most states in the world, these weapons are a great strategic choice.
North Korea is small and weak. Its economy is one-twentyfifth the size of South Korea’s. It is poor and backward. It has few friends in the world. Even China and Russia approach North Korea opportunistically. They use North Korea to distract the Americans from Ukraine and the South China Sea for strategic reasons. But they have no warm feelings for a bizarre Orwellian tyranny that both China and Russia have left behind in their history.
North Korea also faces a powerful opponent in the U.S. And since the end of the Cold War, U.S. power has often been deployed against rogue states akin to North Korea. In the last 30 years, the U.S. has attacked countries as various as Panama, Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush put North Korea on his “axis of evil” and said he “loathed” then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
The North Koreans correctly learned the lesson from these American regime-change wars: that only nuclear weapons could permanently insure them against American force. They look to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who surrendered his nuclear weapons program to the Americans in the 2000s in exchange for security guarantees but was then overthrown and killed with U.S. help during the Arab Spring.
So if you are the ruling Kim family of North Korea, nuclear weapons are a great insurance policy. They provide a measure of regime security that no amount of American, South Korean and Japanese promises or money can replace.
Hence, despite all the meetings, summits and big talk, little has actually occurred in the last 14 months. North Korea is willing to bend on issues peripheral to the core nuclear weapons question. The North has evinced a willingness to shut down a nuclear material processing facility and a missile production facility. It has also shown a willingness to permit international inspectors of any final deal with the U.S. And it has cleaved to a self-imposed test ban of nuclear weapons and missiles.
All this is progress, and Moon and Trump deserve some limited praise for these steps. But on the core issues, the North Koreans have not moved at all, and they almost certainly will not barring enormous counter-concessions from the U.S.-South Korean-Japanese side.
By core issues, I mean four things: nuclear warheads, medium- and long-range missiles, missile launchers and other weapons of mass destructions (WMD), namely biological and chemical weapons. To date, unsurprisingly, the North has not surrendered any of these systems, nor have they even given the U.S. a roster or inventory of what they have. It is practically impossible to bargain with Pyongyang over WMDs when we do not even know what they have.
And this raises the absolute minimum agenda for Trump at Hanoi. At his first meeting with Kim in Singapore last summer, he did not get that inventory or list of weapons. Nor have Moon or U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo managed to claw it from Kim since Singapore.
Trump must absolutely get it this time. If the North Koreans are even remotely serious about denuclearization, this is the necessary first step. And if they are unwilling to part with it even after two one-on-one meetings with no less than the president of the United States, then they are not serious and Trump should not meet with Kim again. Two summits that produce little but photo-ops for North Korean propaganda is not worth it.
Given the huge regime security benefits of nuclear weapons discussed above, I personally doubt Kim will surrender an inventory. He will do as the North has done all year — dance around the core issues, offering smallish concessions like inter-Korean family reunions or facility closures — while avoiding the main issue: negotiating the removal of nuclear weapons from North Korea.
Hanoi is a test of this, likely the last test. I hope I am wrong, and that Trump somehow manages to pull out an inventory from Kim. But it is pretty unlikely. We likely need to adjust to the medium-term reality of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
Robert E. Kelly is a professor in the Department of Political Science of Pusan National University in South Korea. His Twitter address is @Robert_E_Kelly .
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.