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Why the Trump-Kim Nuclear Show Is Set for Act Three

June 20, 2019, 10:09 PM UTC
Two historic summits between the U.S. and North Korea resulted in no concrete plans to end Pyongyang’s atomic ambitions. President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong Un have toned down hostile rhetoric, shook hands in Singapore in June 2018 and were on cordial terms even after their second summit broke down in Hanoi in February. All the while, North Korea’s nuclear program quietly advanced and U.S.-backed sanctions continued to choke its moribund economy. The two countries can’t agree on what the denuclearization of North Korea means and what rewards should be given, if any, in response to Pyongyang’s moves toward disarmament. Both men say they’re willing to meet again, although Kim said the U.S. must first stop making one-sided demands.

1. What have they agreed to?

The first summit resulted in a bare-bones declaration that contained four main items: To normalize ties between the U.S. and North Korea, formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, repatriate U.S. war remains and — crucially — “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But “work toward” is undefined. It’s also unclear whether the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea is included. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo says that Kim accepted the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.” North Korea points out the agreement referred to the entire peninsula and insists U.S. weapons must go at the same time, or it would be left vulnerable to attack.

2. What does the U.S. want?

To start, the U.S. wants North Korea to provide an inventory of weapons, facilities and fissile material it has produced. Kim’s regime calls that akin to asking for a “target list.” Further steps would include inspections, closing facilities and destroying weapons, and even surrendering nuclear material, according to proliferation experts. Past talks have faltered on the question of inspections and verification.

3. What does North Korea want?

Kim wants “corresponding measures,” or immediate rewards, for any steps his regime makes. In a televised New Year’s address, Kim threatened to take a “new path” if Washington didn’t relax crippling economic sanctions. He signaled that any deal might require weakening the U.S.-South Korean alliance, urging Seoul not to resume military exercises with the American side. And he made clear that he believed the denuclearization pledge includes “strategic assets” such as America’s nuclear-capable planes and warships. But his language was less bellicose than past years, possibly reflecting his limited options. In a speech in April, Kim said he’s open to a third summit before the end of 2019, but continued to insist on more give from the U.S. side. Trump tweeted that a third summit would be good, but was otherwise noncommittal.

Donald J. Trump


I agree with Kim Jong Un of North Korea that our personal relationship remains very good, perhaps the term excellent would be even more accurate, and that a third Summit would be good in that we fully understand where we each stand. North Korea has tremendous potential for…….

Sent via Twitter for iPhone.

View original tweet.

4. What has North Korea offered?

In Hanoi, North Korea offered to shut down parts of its Yongbyon nuclear complex, which has served as the crown jewel of its atomic program, in return for sanctions relief. The aging facility about 60 miles north of Pyongyang was once the main source of its fissile material, turning out roughly enough plutonium each year for one atomic bomb. But North Korea has since turned to uranium enrichment for weapons. Still, Yongbyon remains its main atomic research facility and a complete closure would affect its nuclear program.

5. How did the Hanoi summit end?

Abruptly. Trump said he walked out after Kim insisted that sanctions be completely lifted. North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho disputed Trump’s claim, saying that North Korea only asked that UN sanctions imposed during 2016 and 2017 be lifted. He also said Kim had pledged not to restart missile testing. The two sides, which do not have diplomatic relations, have also floated a deal to end the 1950-53 Korean War and talked about setting up liaison offices in the other’s capital.

6. So what’s happened since Singapore?

Small steps. In July 2018, North Korea released some 55 sets of remains of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War, but negotiations slowed over the remains of thousands of others. While Kim followed through on pledges to refrain from nuclear weapons tests and dismantle testing facilities, those were moves he had committed to before meeting Trump, having declared the testing phase complete. On the U.S. side, Trump suspended or scaled back military drills with South Korea, calling them expensive “war games.” In doing so, he overruled then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who argued they were needed to ensure troop readiness. But the Trump administration also imposed extra sanctions on North Koreans to maintain the pressure. Relations between North and South Korea improved somewhat, with a deal in September for removing land mines and some guard posts from the border zone. But Trump in April rejected as premature a proposal from South Korean President Moon Jae-in for confidence-building economic projects with North Korea. In June, Trump complimented a “beautiful” letter from Kim but said talks between U.S. and North Korean nuclear negotiators need to advance before another meeting.

7. Where does China stand?

The U.S.-China trade war has complicated cooperation between Washington and Beijing, but China has said it backs further meetings between Trump and Kim. The problem for Trump is that China — as North Korea’s dominant trading partner and sole security ally — is key to maintaining the economic isolation the U.S. is relying on to force Kim back to the negotiating table. While China has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to international sanctions, the country has shown its limits; for instance, China joined Russia in blocking the UN Security Council committee that monitors sanctions from declaring that North Korea exceeded its annual import cap on refined petroleum products, the Associated Press reported in June. President Xi Jinping embarked on the first visit by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years in June, saying he wished to “open a new chapter” in ties.

8. Is North Korea still dangerous?

Trump declared after the first summit that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.” The prospect of war seems to have receded, but since the first meeting in June, North Korea likely produced enough fissile material for four or more atomic bombs and worked on making more missiles that could deliver a warhead to anywhere on the U.S. mainland. Satellite images released in March showed that North Korea was rebuilding a long-range rocket site it recently dismantled. In May, Kim oversaw a live-fire military exercise that potentially included North Korea’s first ballistic missile launch since 2017, while stopping just short of challenging Trump’s bottom line by continuing a moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile firings and underground nuclear tests. Trump referred to the missiles tested as “some small weapons,” saying the operation “disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me.”

9. Why isn’t the Korean War officially over?

Because the parties involved in talks to end the war — China, North Korea and the U.S.-led UN Command — never were able to agree on a peace treaty. What was signed in 1953 was only an armistice, or truce. However, signing a treaty now without a disarmament deal carries risks for the U.S., because it could legitimize Kim’s control over half of the peninsula and undermine the rationale for stationing 28,000 or so American troops in South Korea. Each side uses the continued threat of attack to justify its own military activities.