War Stories

Kim Plays the Long Game

Don’t look now, but it’s just possible that North Korea isn’t actually denuclearizing.

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump sit at a table and sign the joint statement, with Mike Pompeo standing over Trump.
Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump sign documents as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo observes at the Capella Hotel in Singapore on June 12.
Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Before President Trump flies off to his summits with the leaders of NATO, then with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the administration has another, lower-profile, but no less tense diplomatic mission: one more trip to Pyongyang, in early July, by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

It will be Pompeo’s first meeting with North Korean officials since Trump’s June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un. The precise agenda is unclear—the fact of the meeting, which was reported by the Financial Times and attributed to four sources, hasn’t yet been announced by the State Department—but the main topic is likely to be North Korea’s inaction, to date, on dismantling its nuclear arsenal.

As nearly every outside observer noted at the time, the joint statement, which Trump and Kim signed at their summit in Singapore, ranks among the hollowest such documents in recent diplomatic history. In it, Kim pledged to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but nothing was said about a timetable (either to denuclearize or to declare how many nuclear weapons Kim possesses now), verification procedures, or even the definition—a contentious matter—of “denuclearization.”

Still, Trump came away from the summit in a mist of triumph, claiming that the two leaders had signed a “very, very comprehensive document,” that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat, and that Kim—a man worthy of his “trust”—would start “de-nuking” immediately upon returning to his homeland. Pompeo, while not so naïve by nature, gulped a glass of Team Trump Kool-Aid, announcing right after the summit that more detailed talks would begin within days and yelling at a reporter who had the temerity to ask if a deal, once struck, would be verifiable.

It would, therefore, be embarrassing if it turned out that the North Koreans hadn’t taken a single step toward disarmament or even toward serious negotiations on the subject. Yet that is precisely the state of affairs.

The highly regarded website 38 North, dedicated to detailed analysis of North Korean issues, has published commercial satellite images, taken on June 21, revealing that work—including infrastructure improvements—was continuing, in some cases accelerating, at the country’s plutonium production reactor and uranium-enrichment plant in the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center.

The website’s analysts noted that this work “should not be seen as having any relationship to North Korea’s pledge to denuclearize,” as the regime’s “nuclear cadre can be expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang.”

And that’s the point: No such orders have been issued—nor can any be expected any time soon, as the statement that Trump and Kim signed is not remotely a deal.

Siegfried Hecker, physics professor at Stanford University and a leading expert on North Korea’s nuclear program, put it this way in an email to me: The North Koreans “have not yet declared that they would shut the complex down—and, indeed, they have not.”

Hecker cautioned that the satellite images reveal little, one way or the other, about whether the North Koreans are accelerating or slowing down the production of nuclear weapons. The plutonium reactor may or may not be operating at full power; the centrifuge plant might be enriching uranium at a high or low level. This sort of knowledge can come only from international inspectors, authorized by an international accord to be inside the plants.

Not only are Pompeo’s appointed negotiators nowhere near reaching such an accord, but they also haven’t broken through North Korea’s resistance to proceed with negotiations.

In the weeks leading up to the summit, U.S. negotiators complained in cables back to Washington that their North Korean counterparts weren’t budging on any vital issues—defining “denuclearization,” setting timetables, disclosing their present stockpiles, and so forth. The White House replied, in effect: Just get the joint statement written, forget about the details. Trump wanted the summit, and he wanted it on June 12. The North Koreans knew this, which gave them a lot of leverage. Since the summit, Trump and Pompeo have remained more palpably eager for a deal than Kim—and so the North Koreans continue to stall, having no incentive to behave otherwise.

Back in Singapore, Trump also agreed to cancel the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, to the surprise of the South Koreans and the Pentagon—in exchange for no new commitments from Kim. Pompeo and other officials noted that the strong economic sanctions against Kim’s regime would remain in place until disarmament was well along. But the United States does no business with North Korea anyway, so sanctions—whether maintained or lifted—have no effect. They did have some impact when Trump—and, before him, President Obama—persuaded the U.N. Security Council to sanctify the sanctions. However, especially since the summit and the resulting reduction of tensions, China and South Korea have lowered the barriers considerably. Goods of all sorts are moving in and out of North Korea; trucks, which were once inspected at the borders for prohibited materials, are now, for the most part, waved through with no delay.

I’ve asked some former U.S. officials, who are knowledgeable about North Korea and arms-control negotiations, how long Kim could continue to string Trump along, making a few feints and gestures toward disarmament—blowing up a test site, dismantling a missile, exporting a few grams of plutonium—without doing, or agreeing to, anything meaningful. They estimated that he could keep this up for about a year, before the game would be inescapably clear.

This may be why Pompeo is flying to Pyongyang the week before Trump journeys to his summits with NATO (where the allies fear he will reprise the insults that he flung at the G-7 summit in Quebec) and with Putin (where they fear he will strike a deal as empty as the one with Kim or, perhaps, more dangerous still). Pompeo’s hope may be that Kim can be persuaded to make a gesture that fosters at least the appearance of diplomatic progress, which Trump could then embellish to a fist-pumping triumph before heading off to the misery in Brussels and the bear trap in Helsinki. But what will Kim demand for that favor? And for how long, and at what cost to American prestige and security, will the charade continue?