SEOUL—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heads back to Pyongyang on Thursday pretty sure the North Koreans will have some American soldiers’ remains to offer, if nothing else. This comes at a time when the administration needs something, anything, to show Kim Jong Un would keep at least one of the commitments from his schmoozefest with President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12.
But nukes? Complete, verifiable, irreversible “denuclearization”—CVID, as the Americans say? We are a long, long way from that. And reports by NBC News and The Washington Post over the last few days suggest we are getting farther away all the time.
The North Koreans are not saying a thing about those intelligence assessments from Washington that purport to show they’re doing whatever they can to hide their nuclear warheads—and may even be improving on the facilities with which to make them.
Pompeo, on his third mission to North Korea, his first since the Singapore summit, will hope to meet Kim, whom he saw on his first two visits to Pyongyang. But there’s no guarantee he’ll get much more than the skeletal remains of about 200 GIs killed during the Korean War more than 65 years ago.
Trump told a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, two weeks ago the bones already had been turned over, which turned out not to be true. That was a relatively minor claim compared to his boast on June 15 when he told reporters that he’d taken care of the North Korean nuclear threat, which outgoing President Barack Obama had told him was “the most dangerous problem” he’d face. “I have solved that problem,” Trump said. “That problem is largely solved.”
While it’s possible the North Koreans have more in mind to offer than the hostage remains of American fighting men, there’s not much reason to be optimistic about Kim’s making good on the administration’s core demand: “Complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” and the abbreviated term CVID are not in the lexicon of the North Korean state media.
Pompeo in Pyongyang may also, diplomatically, avoid use of those dreaded initials, but he has said they do equate to “complete denuclearization,” and he’s going there to persuade the North Koreans to try and give an appearance of the “progress” that White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said was happening when she announced his mission.
The point, she said, was to keep up the “great momentum” for “a positive change”—favorite White House phrases—although aside from the talk about return of remains there’s been no public indication of any such momentum since Trump and Kim signed that joint statement in Singapore.
Victor Cha, White House adviser on Korea during the presidency of George W. Bush and now a professor at Georgetown, told me in an email that there is “pressure” to add substance to those denuclearization promises in return for Trump’s unilateral cancellation of huge annual U.S.-South Korean war games set for August. But he is skeptical about the likelihood of any great news about nukes in the short term.
Formerly Trump’s choice as ambassador to South Korea, Cha lost out last year after making clear he did not favor a “preemptive strike” on North Korea. Nor was he on board with Trumpian threats to pour “fire and fury” on the North if Kim, then reviled by Trump as “Little Rocket Man,” persisted in threats to launch a nuclear warhead at the U.S.
Now Cha appears as a hard-nosed realist noting the obstacles likely to preclude Kim behaving like the “honorable” nice guy who “loves his people” portrayed by Trump post-summit. “The intelligence community is leaking that North Korea is amassing nuclear fuel,” Cha told me. “No one said this was going to be easy!”
As for the optimism still exuded by President Donald J. Trump, Cha said simply, “If DJT thought that a meeting and some nice words would get KJU to abandon his programs in some fairy tale ending to the Korean problematic, then he should know better now.” There are, Cha said, “no fairy-tale endings with North Korea.”
But Cha also made clear the Americans thought they had reason to expect some concessions from the North as a modicum of good faith in return for cancellation of Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the massive joint annual U.S.-South Korean military exercise that had been set as usual for August. “Otherwise,” Cha asked rhetorically, “why suspend the exercise?”
Sung Kim, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, has been negotiating at the truce village of Panmunjom with North Korea’s Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party, who recently met Trump and Pompeo in Washington. The overall nuclear program—and return of remains—are both believed to be on the agenda, along with those intelligence reports that the North Koreans might well be going back on the solemn pledge that Kim Jong Un made in Singapore.
First NBC News and then The Washington Post reported signs of North Korea reversing course while avoiding any reference in public statements to its nuclear program. The Post, sourcing unidentified “officials,” cited “preparations to deceive the United States about the number of nuclear warheads in North Korea’s arsenal as well as the existence of undisclosed facilities used to make fissile material for nuclear bombs….”
That report jibes with what others have been telling me about the North’s nuclear activities. Bruce Bechtol, former U.S. Defense Department intelligence analyst and author of books on North Korea’s military, said satellite imagery indicates the North’s main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang, “remains not only operational but [Kim] has actually made some improvements to the site.” How “major or minor” they are “is up to the spin of the analyst,” said Bechtol,” but the fact remains that Yongbyon has not slowed down and is actually upgrading a bit.”
Besides Yongbyon, the site of the North’s plutonium reactor, with which it has made most of its 40 to 60 warheads, Bechtol said North Korea had at least two facilities for making them with highly enriched uranium. “Since North Korea continues to operate Yongbyon,” he said, “operations at other secret (HEU) sites would be consistent with a policy of operating their nuclear weaponization facilities even as talks continue.”
Joseph Yun, recently retired as the State Department’s top expert and negotiator on North Korea, said in a visit here last week that “what we’re looking for is a sign that Kim is serious about changing the course.” As a first step, he said, “they have to give a complete declaration of what they have.” Only with that declaration “will we know that they are serious.”
Yun estimated for the North to get rid of its entire program “might take 15 or 20 years” though he did “have expectations” that “the two sides will agree on concrete measures” while Pompeo is in Pyongyang.
Choi Jin-wook, former head of the Korea Institute of National Unification, believes the whole process “is going to be several years if at all.” While “there is no CVID,” he said the search for the missing American dead can be “big business for North Korea, “coming eventually to more than $100 million.”
Maybe Kim can take some much publicized steps to save face for Trump, like returning skeletal remains, but there’s also that difficult thing called “sequencing.” The Americans have indicated they seriously expect a specific schedule. They’re avoiding all those intimidating “line” words — like “timeline” or “deadline” or the really awful “red line,” but they want details, details. But any precise promise or commitment may be elusive.
Kim no doubt is happy to have been treated as a statesman-like “equal” to the American president, and cancellation of the hated war games was all well and good, but he definitely wants more—much more, starting with relief from sanctions imposed by the U.N. and U.S. after all those nuclear tests, most recently last September.
China is winking at some of the sanctions as oil and other much needed products flow across the border, but Trump and Pompeo have both said forget about removing sanctions if you don’t do away with your nuclear program, as The Daily Beast has reported. That was a major point in Trump’s rambling press conference after the Singapore summit.
Trump was careful enough to fudge on whether the North needed “a 15-year process” to cease to be a nuclear state. “Assuming you wanted to do it quickly, I don’t believe that,” he said. “I think whoever wrote that is wrong. There will be a point at which when you are 20 percent through you can’t go back.”
For evidence, he cited conversations with “an uncle who was a great professor for 40 years at MIT.” Yup, turns out Trump “used to discuss nukes with him all the time.” John Trump “was a great expert, a great brilliant genius,” said the adoring nephew. “MIT sent me a book on my uncle. We used to talk about nuclear. You talk about a complex subject. It is not just get rid of the—rid of the nukes. When you hit a certain point, you cannot go back.”
But how long, then, would North Korea need before reaching that nebulous point-of-no-return? “We don’t know,” Trump hedged, “but it will be quickly.” Presumably those remarks leave room for negotiations—maybe even beginning to lift sanctions—for Pompeo to talk about in Pyongyang.
Analysts are fairly unanimous, however, in deriding National Security Adviser John Bolton’s hypothetical and hyperbolic remark Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation that U.S. experts, “with North Korean cooperation, with full disclosure of all of their chemical and biological, nuclear programs, ballistic missile sites... would be able to dismantle the overwhelming bulk of their programs within a year.”
Bolton said he was sure that Pompeo would be talking to the North Koreans about “how to dismantle all of their WMD and ballistic missile programs”—and, “if they have already made the strategic decision to do that and they’re cooperative, we can move very quickly.”
Kim Kisam, a former South Korean intelligence official now in the U.S., says flatly that U.S. overtures to North Korea “cannot go well.” Both the U.S. and North Korea “want to buy as much time as possible,” he said. “They share that interest. No more than that.” He predicted a “showdown maybe at the end of this year or beginning of next year.”
“Those who trust North Korea pay a dear price,” said commentator Shim Jae-hoon, a longtime writer for the old Far Eastern Economic Review and contributor to Yale Global. The Singapore summit “had the effect of establishing North Korea as a ninth nuclear state,” he told me. “Trump got nothing for his avowed aim of denuclearizing the North. Now the U.S. and South Korea are going to pay a stiff price for his diplomatic fiasco.”
Stephen Tharp, a retired U.S. Army officer who spent most of his career advising and participating in talks with the North Koreans at Panmunjom, put it this way: “There are no real surprises here. It is like one of my favorite Chinese phrases, which kind of translates as ‘you can’t teach a dog not to eat shit.’”
That’s a view that Pompeo would hope not to reconfirm during his upcoming visit to Pyongyang. If he just gets the North Koreans to agree to turn over some of those remains, then he and Trump may think they can still go around saying the mission was a “terrific” if not “amazing” success on the way to CVID, no, make that “denuclearization.”