‘Rocket Man’ 1, Trump 0: North Korea Keeps Its Nukes for Now
The Singapore declaration does not commit Kim Jon Un to a firm, verifiable process for giving up his nuclear weapons, but the president believes Kim ‘will do the right thing.’
The historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended with the celebratory signing of a declaration that the United States and North Korea will “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
But the declaration, which echoes the vague language of an April joint statement by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, does not commit North Korea to a firm, verifiable process for giving up its nuclear weapons or the associated research-and-development effort.
Despite Trump telling reporters that his meeting with Kim went “better than anybody could have expected,” only one man truly had any reason to celebrate.
Kim walked away from the brief summit at a Singapore hotel on June 12 with all the legitimacy that a meeting with the world’s most powerful person confers—and without giving up very much in return. In addition, Trump said the U.S. would end war games with South Korea, which the president later described to ABC News as “very, very expensive” and “provocative.”
The New York Times reported the announcement stunned South Korea’s leadership—and left surprised Pentagon officials scrambling.
“Kim achieves a huge goal of his father and grandfather in exchange for... agreeing to acknowledge progress,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told The Daily Beast.
Now, it’s true that North Korea released three American prisoners as a sign of goodwill in the weeks before the summit. But Kim’s regime didn’t specifically promise to give up any of the several dozen nuclear weapons that experts estimate it possesses.
And despite staging a dramatic demolition of portions of its main atomic test site, experts say North Korea could easily resume development of nuclear weapons.
During a press conference after the signing, Trump said Kim had made additional promises to destroy a major missile-engine testing site in the near future, but he conceded that was not outlined in the original signed agreement. “He wants to do the right thing,” Trump said about the “very talented” Kim. “Honestly, I think he’s going to do these things.”
“I do trust him, yeah,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopolous. "Now, will I come back to you in a year and you’ll be interviewing and I’ll say, gee I made a mistake? That’s always possible. You know, we’re dealing at a very high level, a lot of things can change, a lot of things are possible. He trusts me, I believe, I really do.... He said no other president could have done this. I think he trusts me, and I trust him.”
In the interview—the first with a non-Fox News outlet in a year—Trump said there were additional steps Pyongyang would be taking, including “getting rid of things that haven’t been mentioned in the document.” He then described his reason for ending the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises:
“I’m doing something that I’ve wanted to do from the beginning. We stopped playing those war games that cost us a fortune. You know, we’re spending a fortune, every couple of months we’re doing war games with South Korea, and I said, ‘What’s this costing?’ We’re flying planes in from Guam, we’re bombing empty mountains for practice. I said ‘I want to stop that and I will stop that, and I think it’s very provocative.”
“Did you talk about pulling troops out? U.S. troops out of South Korea?” Stephanopolous asked.
“We didn’t discuss that, no,” Trump answered. “But we’re not gonna play the war games. You know, I wanted to stop the war games, I thought they were very provocative. But I also think they’re very expensive. We’re running the country properly, I think they’re very, very expensive. To do it, we have to fly planes in from Guam—that’s six and a half hours away. Big bombers and everything else, I said, ‘Who’s paying for this?’ I mean, who pays, in order to practice.”
The AP reports Seoul’s presidential office told a reporter it was “trying to discern the exact meaning and intent of Trump’s comments.”
Experts are skeptical that Kim will ever denuclearize. “If North Korea agreed to disarm, right after having by their own account attained an intercontinental thermonuclear capability, it would be completely unprecedented,” Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, told The Daily Beast.
Meeting Trump while still keeping its nukes represents a “huge propaganda victory for North Korea and Kim Jong Un,” tweeted political analyst Matthew Dowd, a former consultant to President George W. Bush.
U.S. officials had set a high standard for the success at the summit. The “only outcome the United States will accept” is the “complete and verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters only the day before Trump and Kim met.
Despite the Trump administration’s strong language leading up to the summit, North Korea never specifically promised it would give up its nukes, which the impoverished country has spent decades and billions of dollars developing.
Pyongyang tested its first atomic warhead in 2006. The pace of the country’s nuclear development significantly accelerated around the time of Trump’s election in November 2016. Kim announced that his regime was preparing to test its first intercontinental ballistic missile.
“It won’t happen!” Trump tweeted.
But ICBM tests did happen—three times in 2017. Kim’s third ICBM test of that year, on Nov. 28, was his most impressive. The rocket arced 2,800 miles into space before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and splashing into the Sea of Japan around 600 miles from the launcher.
David Wright, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts, calculated the rocket’s potential maximum range. By flattening its trajectory, Pyongyang could extend the rocket’s striking distance to no less than 8,000 miles—sufficient to strike anywhere in the continental United States.
The U.S. military’s own missile defenses failed to keep pace. In May 2017, the Missile Defense Agency tested a rocket it claimed was capable of intercepting an incoming North Korean ICBM before it could hit the United States.
But the test wasn’t realistic, according to Laura Grego, a missile expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists based in Massachusetts. Grego examined the distances the two test rockets were expected to travel—and how quickly—and concluded that the target rocket would probably be significantly slower than an ICBM launched from North Korea would be.
The paltriness of U.S. defenses did not stop Trump from provoking Kim. “Rocket man is on a suicide mission,” Trump said during a September 2017 address at the United Nations in New York City, using his then-favorite nickname for Kim. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Instead, in March 2018, Trump offered to meet with Kim and Kim accepted. Trump abruptly canceled the summit a few weeks later—and then quickly uncanceled it.
Meanwhile, North Korea claimed it suspended nuclear testing. And in early May it staged a partial demolition of its main atomic test site—a purely symbolic gesture. “Kim can dig new tunnels quickly to replace the collapsed sites if he chooses to do so,” pointed out Bruce Blair, a Princeton University nuclear expert.
“Suspending testing is a good-faith gesture and bargaining ploy that yields what Kim wants out of his testing program politically,” Blair said. The North Korean leader finally secured that political prize as he sat with Trump in Singapore, signing a document that legitimized his regime, cost him next to nothing—and let him keep his nukes.
In the ABC interview, Stephanopolous asked how Kim’s commitment to denuclearization would be verified, and Trump gave vague descriptions of working closely with the North.
“Mike Pompeo has got really, very good, strong relationships and others have also,” Trump said. “Today, we introduced him to John Bolton, which was a very interesting thing, and—
Stephanopolous interjected: “He says, how do you know Kim Jong Un is lying? His lips are moving.”
“By the end of that conversation, it was good,” Trump insisted. “I think they have a good trust.”