Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
After Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un made it abundantly clear that he will not unilaterally surrender his nuclear weapons. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, because he has never offered to unilaterally surrender his nuclear weapons. Not once.
The Singapore Declaration clearly sets forth a sequence where, only after trust has been built and a peace regime established between the United States and DPRK, will North Korea “work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” President Trump and Secretary Pompeo triumphantly declared that this meant that North Korea would “denuke” or that it meant Chairman Kim agreed to the “final, fully verified denuclearization of the DPRK.” It does not.
And after Pompeo’s visit, the North Koreans were not going to allow him to paper over these differences anymore, since they are more than semantic. For North Korea, demanding that it surrender its nuclear weapons without first working toward a peace regime and building trust in a phased manner—which presumably includes some sanctions relief—is tantamount to “robber like” behavior, and they are clearly stating: stop saying we agreed to unilaterally disarm, and stop asking for it, because it’s not going to happen.
Does that mean the process is dead in the water? Not at all. It is a classic North Korean strategy to fire back like this, and also to run out the clock on meetings, which it sounds like they did by stonewalling even on commitments that the Trump administration believed were secured: return of remains and destruction of presumably the Sohae engine test site.
The North Koreans signaled several things going forward. First, they are willing to discuss things short of unilateral disarmament, but it will cost the US a lot and it will burn a lot of clock, so be prepared for a long slog. For example, in a section that received little attention, North Korea linked the destruction of Sohae—for the first time in an official statement—with a suspension of ICBM production (not just flight tests). That does not mean they will freeze ICBM production immediately, and it could be word-play, but it is not nothing and is worth pushing on.
Second, they appealed to Trump directly to rein in the “headwinds” that are slowing down trust-building and a peace regime, which was a signal to stop opening up with unilateral disarmament as a prerequisite to peace talks. They suggested the process was in critical condition, but it was not dead.
It now remains to be seen how the administration will react to North Korea’s tactics. The President might believe he was betrayed by Kim, despite Kim having never actually agreed to unilaterally disarm, as Trump believes. This might lead to heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula such as a resumption of exercises and missile testing if talks fall apart. Alternatively, the President might live in denial about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, wanting to chalk up Singapore as a win and willfully overlooking evidence that North Korea is not only not disarming, but continuing and possibly expanding nuclear production. That avoids direct conflict, but does little to help cap what could potentially be a monster of a nuclear weapons arsenal.
The best outcome would be continued engagement on issues of overlapping interest but abandoning the demand for unilateral disarmament up front and kicking that can down the road. There are meaningful objectives—such as declaration of facilities and freezing production—that can still be achieved, but they will require a lot of patience and a lot of long meals in Pyongyang.