North Korea Sticks to Its Own Understanding of the Singapore Agreement

North Korea Sticks to Its Own Understanding of the Singapore Agreement

Kim insists that any denuclearization must come with up-front concessions. Trump shouldn't fall for it.

There’s disagreement over the Singapore Agreement. The Trump administration claims that Kim Jong-un committed to the complete, fully verified, and irreversible, complete denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea. Yet Pyongyang insists that Washington must first implement trust-building measures.

What measures is the regime is pushing for? A peace treaty to end the Korean War, a security guarantee for the regime, and the removal of sanctions. Until it gets those, Pyongyang is resisting even initial steps toward denuclearization, such as providing a declaration detailing its nuclear programs.

North Korea also seeks to decouple President Trump from the rest of his administration by accusing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton of working against Trump’s “intention to advance [North Korea]-U.S. relations.” Last month, Pyongyang rebuked Pompeo for his “gangster-like demand for denuclearization just calling for CVID, declaration and verification, all of which run counter to the spirit of the Singapore summit.”

Pyongyang sees Trump as more eager than his subordinates to reach a comprehensive deal with fewer preconditions. The regime claims that President Trump agreed to sign a peace declaration, lift sanctions, and “abide by the [North Korean] principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action” rather than unilateral disarmament.

Although the first summit meeting between U.S. and North Korean leaders was historic, the resulting joint statement was weaker than previous regime commitments to denuclearize. Despite the Trump administration’s pre-summit claims that North Korea had moved toward accepting the United Nations-required concept of CVID of its nuclear programs, there was no evidence of that in the communiqué.

The poorly constructed summit agreement enabled both sides to claim contrasting visions of what had been agreed, a flaw consistent with previous agreements with North Korea. The striking differences between U.S. and North Korean post–summit statements reveal that little actual progress toward denuclearization has been made.

North Korea has long rejected calls for its unilateral disarmament, instead of embedding denuclearization within a broader context of global arms control. As a self-professed member of the nuclear club, Pyongyang will abandon its nuclear arsenal only when the other members, including the United States, abandon theirs.

The regime prefers gaining front-loaded concessions before it moves towards compliance with its previous denuclearization commitments, UN resolutions, and international law. Its approach resembles that of a criminal inquiring what benefits a policeman will provide to convince him not to rob banks anymore.



In the face of North Korean obstinacy, the Trump administration has abandoned its earlier advocacy for rapid denuclearization, maximum pressure on the regime, and possibly its insistence on CVID.

Prior to the summit, Secretary Pompeo insisted that the Unitedd States wanted “rapid” denuclearization “that won’t be extended over time.” Pompeo subsequently commented, “It may take some time to get where we need to go. [There is] no time limit on the process [and] no rush.” He now admits that “the ultimate timeline for denuclearization will be set by Chairman Kim.”


President Trump declared, “there’s no rush for speed. We have no time limit” and equated negotiations to the slow cooking of a turkey. North Korea now effectively controls the pace of the negotiations.

There are also questions as to whether the administration is walking back from its previous insistence on CVID—the concept required by numerous UN resolutions. Secretary Pompeo has adopted “permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” and “final, fully verified denuclearization” as alternative monikers. During Pompeo’s recent testimony, senators from both political parties expressed concern that the new terminology reflects a watering down of U.S. demands.

President Trump publicly embraced a policy of “maximum pressure,” yet he has not fully enforced U.S. laws against North Korean violators. For instance, after meeting with senior North Korean official Kim Yong-chol on June 1, Trump said he put hundreds of North Korean sanctions in abeyance because “we’re talking so nicely” with Pyongyang. He added that “I don't even want to use the term 'maximum pressure'."

Trump subsequently disclosed that he wouldn’t sanction three hundred North Korean entities, a number equal to the cumulative total that the U.S. sanctioned during the nine and half years of the Obama and Trump administrations.

In addition, the U.S. Treasury Department deferred implementing sanctions against three dozen Russian and Chinese entities providing prohibited support to North Korea. Nor has the White House taken any action against a dozen Chinese banks that Congress recommended be sanctioned for their dealings with North Korea.

By abandoning timelines, downplaying regime human rights violations, and continuing to pull U.S. punches on sanctions, the Trump administration has now effectively adopted President Obama’s “strategic patience” policy.  In July testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo described current policy as “patient diplomacy.”

The initial euphoric depictions of summit success are not being realized. Instead, Pyongyang has resorted to its decades-old negotiating tactics to drag out negotiations and eke out benefits even for incremental progress on peripheral matters while holding back progress on the real issue of denuclearization. Like a magician diverting his audience’s attention, Kim is dangling progress on shiny objects such as the return of U.S. service member remains and closing non-essential nuclear test sites to distract Washington.

There is a long history of failed diplomatic efforts to resolve North Korean security threats. That doesn’t preclude yet another attempt under a new North Korean leader, but skepticism and wariness are warranted. The Trump administration should learn from the mistakes of past negotiations and not be overeager for an agreement.

Negotiators should emphasize that North Korea must demonstrate progress toward denuclearization and reject Pyongyang’s demands for U.S. action to reduce regime security concerns. The country in violation of UN resolutions is North Korea, not the United States or its allies.

Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation and previously served as CIA’s deputy division chief for Korea.

Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during a test launch of ground-to-ground medium long-range ballistic rocket Hwasong-10 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 23, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA