Editorials

Don't set the bar too low for North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump said this week he is in “no rush whatsoever” to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons. That is unacceptable. Pyongyang’s strategy is to keep those weapons and critical to the success of that policy is habituating others to its nuclear status. The world must not be tricked. North Korea cannot be accepted as a nuclear weapons state and it must remain under sanctions until it makes genuine and irreversible steps toward dismantlement.

Since his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018, Trump has insisted that he ended that country’s nuclear threat. While Pyongyang has halted all nuclear and missile tests for nearly a year and a half, there is little evidence to suggest that the threat is over. The mere suspension of tests after the program has reached maturation and the dismantling of old, outdated facilities is little reason to believe that Pyongyang will give up a nuclear arsenal that it has scrimped and sacrificed for, a capability enshrined in the nation’s constitution and one that is considered the ultimate guarantor of the regime’s survival and status.

In testimony last month to the Senate Intelligence Committee, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats concurred, noting that North Korea was “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities,” which the country’s leaders consider “critical to the regime’s survival.” Thae Yong Ho, the highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea, provided insight into Kim’s thinking, warning last week that “no money in the world will convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.”

Fears that Trump prefers the fiction of success to the messy reality of North Korean policy have been fueled by administration rhetoric that confuses the U.S. goal of denuclearizing North Korea with Pyongyang’s insistence that it will give up its weapons only when the entire Korean Peninsula is denuclearized, as the Korean Central News Agency explained in a commentary in December. “When we refer to the ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ as well, it should be correctly understood as removing all nuclear threat factors from not only the North and the South but from all neighboring areas,” the agency stated.

That is unacceptable. Pyongyang is demanding that Washington retract its extended nuclear deterrent from Northeast Asia, exposing Japan and South Korea to nuclear coercion. Hopefully, Trump will not acquiesce to the demand — although his statements about U.S. alliances, mercurial decisions and the recent U.S.-South Korea special measures agreement give reason to pause.

Trump said that he would “ultimately” like to see North Korea denuclearize, but he has “no pressing time schedule” because “the sanctions are on.” He added that “as long as there’s no testing, I’m in no rush. If there’s testing, that’s another deal.” That is a deeply flawed approach.

Sanctions are eroding as South Korea steps up engagement with Pyongyang and China — the real lifeline for the North Korean economy — rebuilds its relationship with that country as well. Trump’s claim to have ended the threat also reduces the credibility of that policy: Why bother with sanctions when the threat is over, as he claims?

More disconcerting, North Korea is taking a page from Pakistan’s playbook and inuring the world to its continued possession of nuclear weapons. North Korea will pledge to be a good steward of its nuclear capabilities — a promise that demands great skepticism given Pyongyang’s disregard for previous obligations and its readiness to sell anything to earn hard currency — but that is not enough. If Pyongyang can proliferate, then so too will other countries. No doubt Iran is watching closely how this process plays out, and that could trigger nuclear dominoes in that region. Northeast Asia may face a similar future.

When they meet in Hanoi next week, Trump must get Kim to say to the world — and not just to him in a private meeting — that he is willing to dismantle his nuclear weapons and that he is not waiting until the United States withdraws its nuclear umbrella. They can agree on “simultaneous and parallel” steps to build confidence — opening liaison offices in each capital is an option, but that has been tried before (and it failed) — or promise to declare an end of the Korean War, which is the sort of dramatic gesture that Trump enjoys and lives for.

But the two men must use their Hanoi meeting to better define the road map that achieves North Korea’s denuclearization. Bold and sweeping pledges are no longer sufficient. Specific progress and benchmarks are required. Japan cannot entrust its security to empty promises. We — along with the rest of the world — anxiously await the outcome of next week’s summit.