Just weeks after President Donald J. Trump's encounter with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, North Korea has started dismantling the very same rocket engine testing apparatus that enabled it to develop its intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.
At the press conference following their meeting, Trump announced that Kim had given him his word that he would dismantle this site. Now, Kim has followed through.
This is cause for celebration and proof that Trump is succeeding in denuclearizing North Korea where his predecessors failed, right?
Well, not quite.
The details matter in assessing the value of what North Korea is apparently giving up, which is a missile engine test stand on its western coast, at a well-known site called the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (and sometimes Tongchang-ri).
A test stand is effectively a large concrete-and-metal apparatus that allows North Korea's missile engineers to mount large engines and test-fire them before they're mounted on a live missile. It's an essential piece of equipment for any space launch or ballistic missile program.
At least three missiles North Korea introduced to the world last year—the Hwasong-12, the Hwasong-14, and the Hwasong-15—had all or parts of their engines tested at this stand.
But what the successful flight-tests of those missiles showed us last year was that North Korea had cleared the developmental hurdle that would make a site like the one it's now disassembling useful.
In short, they're giving up something that they no longer need and something that can be quickly and relatively easily reconstituted should Kim decide that he would need to conduct further testing of these large missile engines.
Unsurprisingly, U.S. intelligence agencies assessed last week that the test stand could be put back together in a matter of months at most and that the site is no longer critical in North Korea’s ability to serial produce large liquid fuel missiles.
Going back to Singapore, too, it's now become clear with subsequent reporting that Trump's claim that he asked Kim to give up this test stand wasn't how events played out. It was Kim who came prepared to the summit in Singapore with this concession, ready to offer up, knowing that Trump would respond well to a sign that North Korea was willing to give up components of its ballistic missile development program.
While the dismantlement of the test stand can be attributed to what took place on June 12 in Singapore, it's not evidence that North Korea has undertaken any activity that could be considered part of its "complete denuclearization" obligations at the behest of the United States.
Even its self-imposed moratorium on flight-testing intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and its unverified dismantlement of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site were unilaterally announced by Kim, before he had either met South Korean President Moon Jae-in or Trump.
Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang to see through the implementation of the Trump-Kim summit declaration didn't go exactly well and the United States took aim at Russia and China over their lackluster implementation of U.N. Security Council sanctions earlier this month as more signs emerged of the swift death of the U.S. "maximum pressure" campaign.
For the public relations component of this administration's diplomacy with North Korea, any dismantlement activity—no matter how trivial—is desperately needed oxygen and Kim knows this all too well.
There's no doubt that North Korea will continue to drive a hard bargain when it's sitting across the negotiating table from this administration's deputies, but it's in his country's interests to string the United States along. Doing that will require concessions like what's going on at Sohae from time to time.
Effectively, Kim has to keep feeding the administration favorable news cycles that keep the positive headlines on denuclearization rolling in; even if the Sohae site that's being dismantled is trivial in the grand scheme of North Korea's missile program, it can be framed as a significant concession.
For instance, consider that as of last week North Korea had just dismantled the metal superstructure of the engine test site. If Kim needs to milk his goodwill with Trump, he might wait weeks and then proceed to destroy the concrete foundation of the test stand. While that would make it more difficult for North Korea to reconstitute the site, it would not meaningfully change anything.
As long as the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process persists, we'll be likely to see more perfunctory concessions come out of North Korea—probably on Kim's terms. The task for the United States will be to insist on verifiable limits on North Korea's production of launchers for ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads.
As far as the post-Singapore process goes, Kim is setting the pace for his own cosmetic process of "denuclearization."