In January of 2018, a Korean version of the Cuban Missile crisis seemed on the cusp. As my friend Van Jackson wrote, we were far closer to a war—possibly a nuclear exchange—than many people realize. President Donald Trump had spent much of 2017 condemning North Korea’s nuclearization and threatening it with war. He notoriously threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” with “fire and fury.”
Then came a remarkable turn-around. In his January 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made his annual speech and suggested he was open to negotiations. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, terrified Trump would launch a nuclear war over his head which might well destroy his country, started aggressively soliciting North Korea in return. The two Koreas jointly participated in the Winter Olympics in South Korea a short time later.
From there came a rapid series of outreach moves culminating first in an inter-Korean summit between Moon and Kim near the demilitarized zone which splits Korea, followed by a summit between Trump and Kim. No American president had ever met a North Korean leader. That event in Singapore appeared historic. Two more inter-Korean summits followed, and by the end of the summer, the perception was spreading that North Korea would engage in genuine denuclearization. The South Koreans then began pushing for a wide-front détente effort. Negotiations would not turn solely on nuclear missiles. Instead, North Korea would be brought in from the cold as a brother Korean state unnecessarily alienated from the South by ideology and foreign interventions. As partners, these two Korean states would build a future without hostility.
This South Korean track has proceeded apace but has increasingly run afoul of global and western sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear program. The U.S. and South Korean track could move in tandem if the North denuclearized. Ideally, each Northern denuclearization step would lead to a reciprocal sanctions loosening, which in turn would open political space for inter-Korean projects.
Unfortunately, this has not happened. North Korea, as it has done so often in the past, has made good noises about denuclearization but not actually moved much. The Singapore summit declaration includes an aspirational claim of Northern denuclearization, but only contingent on undescribed U.S. policy changes, and with no firm deadline or timeline. In the interim, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has tried to no avail on several occasions to pull specifics out of the North. Moon has continued to hype this year’s process as progress, but on the core strategic issues of nuclear weapons and missiles, there has been almost no progress we on the outside can verify.
North Korea has provided filmed build-downs at several sites, but without qualified, on-the-ground inspectors, it is hard to know if these are genuine concessions. For example, the supposed destruction of the Mt. Mantap facility, a North Korea nuclear test site, may not be that valuable, because the site may already have been compromised by previous tests. And indeed, the claimed destruction may not actually have occurred either, as only western reporters shooting from a distance witnessed an explosion. We have no qualified, independent verification of North Korea’s claims.
More important has been the North Korean halt of nuclear weapons and missile tests. The rough quid-pro-quid on the U.S.-South Korea side for that has been a halt to military exercises. This seems like a fair trade and mild progress, but it still dances around the real issues. These are nuclear weapons and missiles especially, but also mobile missile launders, the deployment of the North Korea military near Seoul on the DMZ, and human rights.
Movement on these issues would represent the costly signals the strategic community is looking for—the type of moves by the North which would represent genuinely painful concession with some amount of irreversibility. The North may be willing to make these steps; Moon has been arguing for months to skeptical western analysts and officials that the North is serious.
But at the moment, the North’s position seems to be that America now needs to offer more for it to move on these hard issues. Specifically, the North now wants to go through with the announced second U.S.-North Korea summit, a declaration ending the never-formally-terminated Korean War, and some sanctions relief. Trump has agreed to the former, and the United States bent a little on sanctions at Moon’s request, while the middle option seems to have slipped off the radar since the summer when Seoul was pushing it hard.
In response to these mild moves, the United States will likely demand an inventory or list of North Korean warheads, missiles, and fissile material. Pompeo’s visits to Pyongyang stumbled over this point, as no serious effort on denuclearization is possible without at least a basic accounting of what the North has. Trump missed a major opportunity to push for this in exchange for the Singapore summit, which was a major, prestige-granting concession to the North in itself. My guess is that such a list is the Trump price for going through with the second summit tentatively for some time at the end of February.
All in all, it has been a year of far less progress that the rhetoric heard from Moon and Trump suggest, but some nonetheless. By the benchmark of last year, when foreigners in Korea were packing go-bags, this year is an obvious improvement. But for all the big talk and made-for-TV symbolism of the summits, the North has not actually given up much, nor have inspectors gotten in to verify anything.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on North Korea human rights said last month that nothing has changed in the eighteen months of Moon’s détente outreach. North Korea has still not surrendered a single warhead or missile. It has still not surrendered any plutonium or uranium. It has not allowed in inspectors to look at these materials. And it has still not given America a list or worksheet from which Washington might bargain over a denuclearization deal.
This need not mean America or South Korea should give up, but allied leaders should start being a lot more responsible in their language. In the spring, the U.S. media was musing whether Trump deserved a Nobel Peace Prize and Trump recently said he “loves” Kim. In addition, Moon has repeatedly put words in Kim’s mouth, claiming he wants denuclearization. Furthermore, both U.S. and South Korea officials have thrown around outlandish, highly unrealistic goals like complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) or final, fully verifiable denuclearization (FFVD).
This is creating unreal expectations. Far more likely is tough, inch-for-inch negotiation with Pyongyang over every detail, taking years to hammer out and fraught with verification dilemmas. The promise of this year’s summit-level diplomacy was that the heads of government could blast their way through the bureaucratic quagmires which bogged down previous diplomatic efforts. That has not occurred. Neither Moon nor Trump have gotten anything out of the North which previous, lower-level efforts did not.
So if we must have this second U.S.-North Korea summit, Trump needs to get a better take-away this time. At a minimum, Trump should demand the inventory. If he cannot even get that, then he should not go. North Korean captures prestige benefits from the summitry, regardless of the outcome, because it gets the optics of meeting the world superpower as a peer equal. Trump should not trade a summit for nothing again.
Robert Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. More of his writing can be found on his website. He tweets at @Robert_E_Kelly.