HWACHEON, South Korea – Getting President Donald Trump to sit down again with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is hardly a matter of concern to Choi Moon-soon, mayor of this town nestled in a mountainous region where U.S. and South Korean forces fought some of their bloodiest battles against the Communists during the Korean War.
Yes, he’s fine with the summits between Trump and Kim and Moon and Kim that have raised hopes for an end to confrontation with North Korea more than 65 years since the signing of the truce that ended that “limited war” in July 1953. “I support the talks so far,” he said. “Of course,” he went on, pausing in the midst of the annual ice festival that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors here on a winter weekend, “first we need denuclearization.”
There’s no guarantee that will happen, but on Thursday the North Korean leader waxed enthusiastic after getting a letter from Trump talking about prospects for their second rendezvous, which they both agree will happen by the end of next month on a precise date and at a place not yet announced—probably Vietnam, either in the capital of Hanoi or the central coastal port of Danang.
Heaping praise on Trump for “his unusual determination and will for the settlement of this issue,” Kim conspicuously did not say just what issues he had in mind, but the power of positive thinking was paramount in the report by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency on the visit of ruling party Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol to Washington last week.
Kim Jong Un, receiving the letter hand-delivered by Kim Y.C., who got it from Trump during their 90-minute meeting in the oval office, said it showed “the positive way of thinking” of the president. He would, he promised, “wait with patience and in good faith and together with the U.S. advance step by step toward the goal to be reached by the two countries.”
That “step-by-step” condition keeps coming up from those yearning for a meaningful outcome from a second summit, but it was definitely not part of the original U.S. position. The operative phrase until quite recently was “complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization” as a prerequisite for lifting sanctions and doing much else as wished for by Kim.
At the Singapore summit in June, Trump settled for a vague commitment to “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and pretended the problem was “solved.” This time around, he will need to come away with something considerably firmer—that’s going to be tough despite the faith that Trump has placed in Kim to come to the table prepared to reach a real deal.
Normally brimming with optimism, Pompeo had to acknowledge there was still “an awful lot of work to do” as the fledgling U.S. nuclear envoy, Stephen Biegun, wound up two days of talks in Stockholm with Choe Son-hui, the North’s tough-as-nails deputy foreign minister, after Kim Yong Chol’s Washington visit. There was, in fact, no word whether the envoys had agreed on an exact time or place for the summit, which Trump said would happen at the end of next month, much less an agenda.
Whatever transpired in Stockholm, Evans Revere, a senior U.S. diplomat who has specialized in Korean issues for years, was certain “North Korea has already made a strategic decision—to keep its nuclear weapons.” It was “important to remember,” he noted, that the role of North Korea’s foreign ministry over the years “has been to delay, obfuscate, evade and use negotiations to extract benefits in return for promises and commitments that ultimately proved of little value.”
It is possible North Korea, by now, is hurting so much economically, partly as a result of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and U.N., that Kim is compelled to consider some serious concessions. These presumably would go beyond the show he’s made of closing down an already useless nuclear test site, blown apart in the North’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017, and shutting down, maybe, an outmoded facility for making engines for missiles.
It did seem Kim, by sending Kim Yong Chol to Washington, might really be ready to get down to serious deal-making. And Trump, for one, was ebullient. After the White House said the talks had been “productive,” the president tweeted that “the media” was “not giving us credit for the tremendous progress we have made with North Korea” and he was “looking forward to meeting with Chairman Kim at end of February!”
Many analysts believe the North is in such dire straits economically that it needs relief through a new Kim-Trump summit. The evidence was the decision to send Kim Yong Chol, who had cancelled a meeting with Pompeo in November, to go to Washington this month instead to see Trump. Presumably that’s because Kim YC’s boss, who’s got to be calling all the shots, saw a personal get-together between YC and Trump as the best assurance he’d get what he really wanted from his pal in the White House.
But what would Trump and Kim be talking about? Surely Kim has a list of demands that by now are well known to anyone following this stuff. Here they are – not necessarily in order of priority. They won’t be easy to meet:
- North Korean rhetoric, and pro-North apologists, like to say sanctions imposed by the U.S. and U.N. are meaningless and useless. You wouldn’t know that, however, from their constant demands for their removal.
- North and South Korea would love it if Trump could be persuaded to sign to an “end of war declaration” to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953. That declaration would immediately be seen as a prelude to a “peace treaty” that Kim and President Moon also advocate. With that down on paper, North Korea would certainly hype up demands for the U.S. to pull out its 28,500 troops and shut down its bases, effectively ending the U.S.-South Korean alliance and abolishing the U.N. Command which has been in place ever since the U.S. and South Korea fought the Korean War from the summer of 1950 to the summer of 1953 with the help of 16 other nations.
- North Korea sees “denuclearization” quite differently from the way it’s discussed by the United States. The North believes the U.S. must remove the “nuclear umbrella” that covers Korea. Back in 1991, President George H.W. Bush ordered removal of all nuclear warheads and weapons from South Korea. But North Korea sees U.S. nukes on bases in Japan and Guam, possibly Hawaii too, as posing a nuclear threat that it has to counter with its own nukes.
“When denuclearization begins, sanctions relief can also begin,” said Bruce Bennett, long-time defense researcher at the Rand Corporation, which for years has produced innumerable analyses for U.S. government agencies. “This is not just a hardnose position [by the U.S. administration]—many of the sanctions are conditional and cannot be easily relaxed until real denuclearization is occurring.”
Reports from the World Food Program and accounts by defectors from North Korea suggest how badly the country is hurting. Beyond appearances of rising prosperity in the capital of Pyongyang, enclave for party, government and military people and their families, hunger and lack of medical care are still endemic throughout the rest of the country.
But Bennett sees no signs that Kim is about to shift his basic policy: “Despite Kim Jong Un’s message of peace and his charm offensive in 2018, he continued building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles according to multiple reports in both the United States and South Korea. I roughly estimate that he increased his nuclear weapon destructive potential by about 70 percent in 2018—that is the opposite of denuclearization.”
Bennett doubts Kim is really ready to make significant concessions, and will regret that.
“I think Kim Jong Un has blown it,” said Bennett. “He appears to be still believing that, like his father, he should refuse to reduce his nuclear weapons until the United States adequately sweetens the deal, for example with an end-of-war agreement.”
In fact, “now that Kim poses a real nuclear threat,” Bennett thinks there is “less patience in the U.S. and South Korea” in dealing with Kim. “Kim would be in a much stronger negotiating position if he had already surrendered a few nuclear weapons, giving people in the United States and South Korea a reason to hope that negotiations could be the solution. He also needs to recognize that if President Trump comes [away] with little tangible benefit, as arguably happened on June 12 in Singapore, it will be politically difficult for the president to continue his ‘strategic patience’ policy towards North Korea.”
If that assessment seems damning, however, it does not mean Trump will refrain from making concessions to Kim. North Korea at Kim’s behest maintains an army of Washington-watchers who’ve got to be acutely aware of the pressure Trump faces right in his own backyard. While no one’s privy to what they’re saying to one another, they have to be thinking or hoping that Trump would like nothing better than to be able to declare a great victory at his next seance with Kim. Surely a “win” vis-a-vis Kim would be just the antidote to mounting problems at home at the hands of a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, many of whom are eager not only to jettison his policies but also to jettison him.
“It looks as though the North Koreans might prefer to meet directly with President Trump because they can get him to agree to things ‘in principle’ without having to iron out the details,” said Stephen Tharp, a retired U.S. army officer who’s been analyzing North Korea for years. “They then make the details that they don't like too hard to resolve. They think Trump is naive enough to make vague verbal agreements that will be more positive for them.”
Tharp is convinced that as a minimum the North Koreans will try to get Trump to again cancel the upcoming joint war games staged by South Korea and the U.S. as Trump did last year right after his summit with Kim in Singapore, much to the dismay of Jim Mattis, then defense secretary. Also, Tharp predicted, Kim will definitely want to agree with him “to declare peace on the Korean Peninsula without taking the proper steps to reduce the real threat from the North.”
For Kim, “participating in a summit with the U.S. President is a tremendous propaganda victory as it elevates his status to that of an international leader on the world stage,” said Tharp, even though he’s “just a third-rate thug-in-charge whose so-called country is really less of a modern nation and more of a cross between a crime family and religious cult.”
Much will hinge on whether Trump will demand that North Korea come up with an inventory of all its nuclear and missile facilities as well as a list of what it’s produced so far. U.S. officials and think-tank analysts have stressed repeatedly that they really don’t know all that North Korea’s got beyond the central nuclear facility at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. That’s where the North has fabricated most if not all its nuclear warheads, estimated at anywhere from 20 to 80 so far.
A report by Victor Cha, who served on the U.S. National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush; Joseph Bermudez, who has specialized for years in analyzing satellite imagery of North Korean sites; and Lisa Collins at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, exposed the existence of a hitherto unknown North Korean missile site 212 kilometers north of Pyongyang – the oldest of 20 or so “undeclared” sites in the North.
The publicity surrounding North Korea supposedly decommissioning a satellite launch facility “obscures the military threat to U.S. forces and South Korea from this and other undeclared ballistic missile bases,” said their report. “Any future agreement must take account of all of the operational missile base facilities that are a threat to U.S. and South Korean security”—including no doubt those great heavy-duty launchers they got from China and show off regularly at parades bearing either missiles or missile dummies intended to scare the hell out of everyone.
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, believes Trump “must insist on tangible steps toward denuclearization, including a data declaration of the regime’s nuclear and missile programs.” Trump definitely should not “offer more concessions or agree to reduce U.N. and U.S. sanctions until Kim moves beyond the symbolic gestures [North Korea] has taken so far.”
That’s a tall order, and something that is not likely to happen. Not that a new summit will be a total waste. Kim and Trump did get to know and apparently like one another. “We also have to remember that in Asia, personal relationships are key to all interactions,” said Bennett at Rand. “Trump’s style in his Singapore meeting with Kim Jong Un reflected Asian culture.”
Bennett sees one problem as the lack of such rapport at levels below the heads of state. “The North Korean dictatorial leadership style allows for little latitude in developing such relationships,” he said. “The United States needs to be looking for opportunities to develop such relationships in its pursuit of article one of the Singapore agreement” committing both countries “to establish….new relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”
On that commitment hinges whatever hopes remain of Trump and Kim getting down to a viable, working agreement at their next meeting. Not likely, but worth a shot.