War Stories

What Is Denuclearization Anyway?

Trump and North Korea are using very different definitions—and that has ramifications.

Kim Jong-Un attends an art performance dedicated to nuclear scientists and technicians at the People’s Theatre in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Kim Jong-Un attends an art performance dedicated to nuclear scientists and technicians at the People’s Theatre in Pyongyang, North Korea.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

With each passing day, the impending Trump-Kim summit takes another dip toward disaster.

In just a month or so, President Donald Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, an unprecedented event of great risk and opportunity. Yet Trump, who leapt at the offer of a meeting with unstudied speed and enthusiasm, shows no signs of deciding what he wants from these talks—and seems unaware of what Kim’s quite clear objectives are.

As has been clear from the moment the subject came up, one obstacle to a successful summit is that both leaders are going into it with conflicting premises. Kim thinks Trump is caving to the reality of a North Korean nuclear arsenal; Trump thinks Kim is caving to the pressure of U.S. sanctions and threats. Both are probably right to some degree, but it’s hard to see how the talks can produce a lasting peace if each man thinks that he has the upper hand at the outset and that, therefore, any deal must be struck on his terms.

Trump seems glued to this delusion. On Sunday, after watching MSNBC’s Chuck Todd question whether Trump had received anything in return after handing Kim “the huge gift” of agreeing to meet with him in the first place, Trump tweeted: “Wow, we haven’t given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!”

Trump was referring to news reports of a speech that Kim had given the day before. But an official record of the speech, delivered at a plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea, reveals that Kim agreed to no such thing.

Rather, Kim said that no further tests of nuclear weapons or medium-to-long-range ballistic missiles “are necessary” (italics added), given that North Korea has “successfully concluded” the process of building a nuclear arsenal. And because of this completion, Kim went on, “the overall situation is rapidly changing in favor of the Korean revolution”—i.e., in favor of North Korea’s triumph.

This is very different from a conciliatory gesture to stop testing. As for closing his nuclear test site, it appears that the site was slated for a shutdown already, having been gutted by the spate of recent weapons tests.

Finally, contrary to the early news reports about the speech, Kim said nothing in the speech about denuclearization. In fact, he described his nuclear arsenal as “a powerful treasured sword for defending peace.”

True, at a secret meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo over Easter weekend, Kim did say he was ready for a “phased” and “synchronized” process toward denuclearization—an expression often invoked by Kim’s father and grandfather, North Korea’s first two rulers. The idea is that the two sides would make simultaneous concessions over a long period of time. For instance, Pyongyang might freeze its nuclear program or admit international inspectors to various sites—in exchange for which Washington would remove some economic sanctions. And in this playbook, denuclearization, if things ever got that far, would involve all countries in the region—including the United States—withdrawing all military forces that had the capability to hoist or fire nuclear weapons.

Yet according to a front-page story in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, Trump will press North Korea to dismantle its entire nuclear arsenal and won’t consider any substantial sanctions relief until it does so. Administration officials dub this demand the “big bang” approach to disarmament. But there is no middle ground between “phased” and “synchronized” on the one hand, and the “big bang” on the other.

So what does Trump hope to get out of this summit? No one seems to know. In an article in Axios titled “Trump’s ‘Great Man’ Play on North Korea,” Jonathan Swan quotes one inside source as saying that Trump views the upcoming summit as “a duel of personalities.” Another source says Trump thinks, “Just get me in the room with the guy, and I’ll figure it out.”

This has long been one of Trump’s basic misunderstandings of international politics: He thinks that everything depends on personal relations (hence the frequent boasts of his “chemistry” with various foreign leaders), when in fact the fundamental cause of cooperation and conflicts is interests.

On this and many other issues, Trump seems to believe that past efforts—at peace talks, trade deals, wars, or whatever—have failed because past presidents were bad negotiators or plain stupid. Perhaps because he never learned history and doesn’t read intelligence reports longer than three pages, it hasn’t occurred to him that some problems are simply intractable—that, in some conflicts, the best one can hope for is a way to muddle through without provoking too much violence and that sometimes, there’s not much to talk about. In those cases, it might still be worth talking (on the Churchillian premise that talking is better than fighting), but that’s one reason nations have diplomatic corps—to hold talks, test ideas, float proposals, and all the rest, without involving the leader’s prestige. The risk of a summit is that it’s adjacent to a cliff: Failure to mount it properly can result in catastrophe.

There is another major obstacle to this summit from the get-go: Trump wants it to result in the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal—whereas Kim thinks that the nuclear arsenal is the one thing that’s keeping him and his regime alive.

Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the North Korean state, referred to his country as “a shrimp among whales.” The essence of his strategy—and that of his successor, the current leader’s father, Kim Jong-il—was to play the whales off one another. Acquiring a nuclear arsenal—Kim Jung-un’s most notable achievement, which he trumpets in every public speech—makes this task much easier.

The nuclear arsenal is the only asset Kim has. Why would he bargain it away? He has no doubt noticed what happens to those leaders who have done just that. Saddam Hussein dismantled his nuclear program (which never did produce actual weapons), and now he’s dead. Muammar Qaddafi did the same, and he’s dead. Iran’s mullahs agreed to do the same, and, although they are still alive, Trump is threatening to pull out of the deal that traded the dismantlement of their nuclear program for the lifting of Western sanctions—even though, as everyone (even Trump) agrees, they are abiding by the terms of the deal. What kind of trade with Trump could Kim trust enough to make disarmament worth the risk?

Which leads to another set of diplomatic talks on Trump’s agenda this week—the visits by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Iran nuclear deal will certainly be a top issue at both meetings, with Macron and Merkel urging Trump to stay in for the sake of national and global security. If Trump bows out anyway, this would certainly have an impact on the coming summit with Kim.

Given the realistic options, it could be in Kim’s interests for the summit to fail. He has been putting on a good show of bonhomie in recent months—the diplomatic overture at the Olympics, the meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping (two more firsts), the hosting of a South Korean pop star.

As Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, put it in a recent paper, Kim has been “squeezing in a couple of years’ worth of summits … into the first six months of 2018, without having had to make any concessions on the nuclear weapons program, his country’s appalling human rights situation, or its … cyberattack operations.”

If the summit fails, Trump will likely be blamed for its failure. And if Trump reacts to the failure by reigniting his “fire and fury” rhetoric, with threats of actual fusillades to follow, our Asian allies—whose leaders welcome a relaxation of tensions with North Korea but also rely on security guarantees from the United States—will likely peel away from Washington, fearing Trump’s belligerence and distrusting his assurances. And that is precisely what Kim wants most.

One more thing

You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus