War Stories

Close, but No Denuclearization

A new agreement between North and South Korea makes clear that Kim isn’t giving up his nukes, and Trump isn’t interested in making him.

Moon Jae-in and Kim Jon-un shake hands.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a joint press conference on Wednesday in Pyongyang, North Korea. Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images

The leaders of North and South Korea have reached an agreement on “denuclearization.” The people rejoice, peace reigns supreme, President Donald Trump claims redemption, a Mar-a-Lago summit seems inevitable.

But the details of this accord between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are worth examining. In any power relationship (and that’s what’s going on here), the key question is, who gets what? In this case, from the vantage of U.S. interests, Kim gets almost everything and we get zip.

The steps that the deal demands North Korea take toward disarmament are negligible at best. Kim expresses his willingness to dismantle the nuclear facility at Yongbyon. But that reactor was used mainly to reprocess plutonium more than a decade ago. North Korea’s main facilities for enriching uranium—the process by which it makes nuclear weapons today—are elsewhere.

Kim also says he will permanently shut down the launch pad at Tongchang-ri, where his scientists have tested intercontinental ballistic missiles, and would do so under the watch of international inspectors. But North Korea’s past few missiles have been tested from mobile launchers, so this too is a fairly meaningless concession.

More (or less) than this, the declaration states that North Korea will take these steps only if the United States responds with corresponding measures. It is unclear what these measures are, but some reasonable guesses are in order. For one thing, there’s been a slight shift in terminology. The declaration calls not merely for the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as in past documents, but a Korean Peninsula “without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats (italics added).” This suggests that North Korea is now demanding a certain amount of denuclearization on the part of the United States.

Michael Green, former director of Asian affairs on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and now a professor at Georgetown, told me that Choi Sun-hee, the North Korean foreign ministry’s chief negotiator, said at a recent conference in Beijing that his country now views denuclearization in the context of Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which North Korea withdrew from in 2003. The NPT bans all signatories from building nuclear weapons, except for those powers already possessing nukes, which, back in 1968, when it was signed, included just the U.S., the Soviet Union, China, France, and Great Britain. Article 6 was a pledge on the part of the nuclear powers “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race.” It was always more theater than substance: “Negotiations in good faith” didn’t quite constitute a pledge to disarm (though, since then, the U.S. and Russia have cut their nuclear arsenals by about 80 percent).

It’s not entirely clear what Choi meant by this reference, but, given the fact that North Korea now declares itself to be a “nuclear-armed state,” in its constitution and in point of fact, it seems that Kim and his regime want equal footing with the top players in the nuclear game: If they’re disarming, the United States (perhaps along with other powers) has to disarm too. This, to say the least, is not in the cards—and I suspect Kim will tread lightly on this point if he wants Trump to go along with this latest peace offensive.

All this said, there are things genuinely worth celebrating in this historic step that Moon and Kim have taken. The idea that the two leaders would meet in Pyongyang, and that Kim would promise a trip to Seoul by the end of the year (a trip that no North Korean leader has ever taken), would have been unimaginable a few years ago. In Korean terms, it’s not unlike Nixon’s sit-down with Mao.

There are also laudable points of substance in the Moon-Kim declaration: the creation of an Inter-Korean Military Joint Committee, to establish regular communication between the two sides’ armed forces; the normalization of North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Complex, a free-market enterprise; more reunions between families long separated by the border; cultural exchanges; economic investment, including cross-border roads and rail lines.

As Scott Snyder, a longtime Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email Tuesday night, “Moon appears to have got enough in play to justify a serious revisiting of these issues and possibly a reengagement between the US and North Korea.”

In an ordinary administration, U.S. negotiators would now meet with their counterparts to pin them down on specifics. How about freezing activities not just at Yongbyon, but at other, far more active reactors? Can international inspectors examine not just that one missile test pad, but other test sites? What kinds of corresponding measures does Kim expect Washington to take? Finally, and most crucially, will North Korea finally provide a detailed list of all its nuclear facilities? That should be a prerequisite to further discussions. There’s no way to gauge how far a country is disarming without knowing how many arms it possesses at the outset.

But this is not an ordinary administration. President Trump believes that he, and he alone, can close these sorts of deals. He believes that Kim is a trustworthy friend and that international relations are built on friendship. Trump regarded the one-page joint statement he signed with Kim at their summit in Singapore as not merely a deal but a “contract,” when in fact it was neither; it was only a trite recitation of vague commitments with no timetables. He is likely to consider the Moon-Kim statement, which is far more concrete, as tantamount to peace. Wednesday morning, he tweeted, quoting his regular intelligence source Fox News: “North Korea recommits to denuclearization—we’ve come a long way,” when in fact they’re neither committed nor recommitted to any such thing.

Trump had already been itching for a reunion with Kim. Even as he canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s scheduled trip to Pyongyang, on the grounds that insufficient progress had been made in talks between the two sides’ negotiators, Trump tweeted, “In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”

Kim appears to want a few things from his diplomatic ventures: a relaxation of tensions, investment in his impoverished country (including the suspension of sanctions), a withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the peninsula (which is what he ultimately means by an end to America’s “hostile policy”), and the splintering of the U.S.-South Korean alliance—all, preferably, at no cost to his regime.

He seems on the verge of getting it. Trump, basking in Kim’s rhetoric without examining the subtext, may hand it to him. At their one-on-one meeting in Singapore, Trump made a couple of key concessions to Kim—the suspension of U.S.-South Korean military exercises and a pledge to work toward a “peace declaration”—for nothing in return. Several administration officials fear that Trump could give away the bank in another tête-à-tête. The Moon-Kim declaration, a historic and promising document in many ways, sets up the terms for that surrender.