War Stories

Back to Fire and Fury?

With the Trump-Kim romance starting to fade, and North Korea restarting work on its nuclear program, the risk of conflict has returned.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un hold a meeting during the second U.S.–North Korea summit at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

One week after the failed Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, the prospects for an agreement to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons seem dimmer still—and the chances of heightened tension, even conflict, have grown.

Last April, shortly before President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un first met, in Singapore, Kim announced that he was shutting down the Sohae Satellite Launching Station—satellite launches use the same technology as intercontinental ballistic missiles—and halting all testing of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, a pledge he has not yet broken.

But commercial satellite photos taken March 2, two days after the Hanoi summit collapsed, revealed that North Korea has rebuilt the site. Subsequent pictures, taken on Wednesday, show that work had progressed to the point where the site has now “returned to normal operational status,” according to the website 38 North. The new imagery doesn’t necessarily mean that Kim will resume testing ICBMs in the very near future—but it does mean that he could if he wanted.

Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he “would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim” if testing did resume. He added, with his customary overconfidence when speaking of his odd friendship with the tyrant from Pyongyang, “I don’t think I will be, but we’ll see what happens. We’ll take a look. It’ll ultimately get solved.”

The two leaders have this in common: They’re both unpredictable when things get desperate—and they’re both desperate in the wake of their recent diplomatic debacle.

Both had oversize hopes for the Hanoi summit. Trump was all-too-visibly keen to make a deal that would put him in the history books and distract attention from the investigations into his financial affairs. Kim needed to cement his reputation, which he’d been crafting for a year, as the brilliant strategist who managed to develop a nuclear deterrent and recharge his country’s economy.

Both men overplayed their hands. Kim offered to stop production at one nuclear reactor (but not at any of the others) if the United States lifted all the sanctions that it (and the U.N. Security Council) has imposed on North Korea since 2016. Trump came to the table with a one-fell-swoop grand deal: He would lift all sanctions if North Korea dismantled its entire nuclear program—all the reactors, uranium-enrichment facilities, uranium and plutonium stocks, finished weapons, missiles, everything.

Each leader rejected the other’s proposal as too demanding and one-sided. Trump then ended the summit early—walking out before the concluding lunch, much less the anticipated signing ceremony—with no deal on anything.

So now what? If Kim were a different sort of leader, even a less brutal sort of dictator, he might have found himself ousted from power by the time he got back to Pyongyang. A coup is still unlikely, given that Kim has murdered insiders—including family members—who display the slightest sign of disloyalty. However, he may depose certain key officials in order to evade responsibility for the failure. Trump has taken a similar, if milder, tact, blaming House Democrats—whose hearing with his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, occurred on the same day as the summit—for weakening his position overseas.

In the week since Hanoi, Trump and his team, far from altering their diplomatic approach, have doubled down on their insistence that North Korea “denuclearize” all at once, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. This demand has always been a nonstarter for Kim and North Korea’s entire elite. Top U.S. intelligence officials—all Trump appointees—have testified that North Koreans will likely never surrender their entire nuclear arsenal, regarding it as vital to the survival of the regime.

From the beginning, the North Koreans have insisted on a step-by-step process of concessions, but the Trump administration has rejected that notion ever since John Bolton became national security adviser in April 2018. This is mainly because Bolton doesn’t want talks with North Korea at all. Bolton tried to sabotage the first summit in June, but once that attempt failed—and as Trump embraced Kim as his new best friend—the canny operator, who has never read an arms control treaty that he liked, sat back, stayed mum, and waited for the bloom to fade.

Now that the fading has begun, Bolton is likely to reassert his dominance. He may face some resistance from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has developed some stake in the negotiations, but only to the extent that it serves Trump’s pleasure—and, with Bolton a few steps from the Oval Office, this resistance too may subside. Until this year, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis played a role in encouraging talks—he had resisted Trump’s earlier desires for a new war plan against North Korea, arguing that there were no good outcomes in such a fight—but now he is gone. His former deputy, Patrick Shanahan, is acting secretary of defense; still auditioning for the full-time slot, he has buoyantly agreed with all of Trump’s positions. In any case, Shanahan is more a manager than a policy analyst.

Meanwhile, Kim remains desperate for sanctions relief, and as he realizes that he’s unlikely to get it from Trump, despite his assiduous courting of the man who loves to be courted, he will probably turn to China and Russia. China, which has long been North Korea’s only stalwart ally, has somewhat cut back its trade since international sanctions were put in place last year, though President Xi Jinping may restore their former relationship to keep Kim’s regime from collapsing. Vladimir Putin might help Kim as well, if just to further his ambitions for closer ties with China and to bash the United States.

Xi has long been upset with Kim’s nuclear and missile tests; the fact that China didn’t veto the last few U.N. sanctions against North Korea is proof of his growing impatience. Xi now has the upper hand in his dealings with Kim, who, after Hanoi, is less able to play the larger powers off one another. Maybe he can use the enhanced leverage to strike his own deal: China will boost its aid and trade if North Korea extends its moratorium on testing missiles and nuclear explosives.

Trump has often said, at least since Singapore, that as long as the North Koreans don’t test their rockets or weapons, he doesn’t care how long it takes them to disarm. “We’re not playing the time game,” he said back in September. “If it takes two years, three years, or five months, it doesn’t matter.” Just this week, asked if he still thinks Kim is prepared to give up the country’s weapons and missiles, he replied, “We’ll let you know in about a year.”

It shouldn’t take nearly that long to formulate an answer. In addition to restoring their launch site, in very quick order, the North Koreans have also continued to build missiles and enrich uranium. They kept that work going, with no slowdowns, in the interim between the two summits, and they continue to do so now.

Siegfried Hecker, a physicist at Stanford University, former director of the Los Alamos weapons lab, and one of the very few Americans who has been let in to see North Korea’s nuclear facilities, said recently that—since the Trump-Kim talks began—Kim’s scientists have enriched enough uranium to build seven more nuclear weapons, bringing their total arsenal to about 37.

It’s unclear how long Trump can afford to sit by and do nothing. He and his aides have lambasted President Obama for his policy of “strategic patience.” Trump may wind up following suit, though his strategy is a blank and it’s unclear what he’s waiting for, or how he plans to help make it happen. Trump had placed all of his chips—all of our chips—on his personal relationship with Kim. He didn’t stop to think that they might have different national interests. Friendship, real or feigned, can’t override those obstacles.

Will U.S. and North Korean diplomats start really talking, now that the end run to the summit proved a dead end? Will Kim go back to testing missiles? If he does, will Bolton urge Trump to take out his “fire and fury” script—and, if so, will Trump recite the lines in hopes of spurring Kim back to the table, or will the reprise be a prelude to war?

There is not much time for someone—in Trump’s administration, in Kim’s camp, or in some other country, which might play the role of intermediary—to step in and stop the juggernaut.