This week’s report from the Center for Security and International Studies makes clear what has been plain for a while—that North Korea is not seriously denuclearizing. The information was revealed in a manner suggesting great surprise or deception. This is not really accurate. The North Korea analyst community has argued all year that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did not make any serious concessions to either U.S. president Donald Trump or South Korean president Moon Jae-in.
It is important to dispute this notion that this report is a great surprise or change, because the analyst community had long feared that when Trump finally learned that North Korea was not, in fact, doing what he kept saying it was doing, he might slide back to 2017 war rhetoric of “fire and fury.” It is therefore critical to observe that none of the four declarations signed by Trump or Moon with Kim—one with Trump, three with Moon—actually obligate North Korea to reduce its nuclear warheads or missiles. The most important of these was the Trump-Kim declaration after their meeting in Singapore—the Sentosa Declaration.
That statement was certainly positive. North Korea once again made good noises about denuclearization. But as so often in negotiating with Pyongyang, the good language was not concrete. The North has, for example, committed to denuclearization in broad strokes in the past in print, only to bog down movement in complicated debates on the details and sequencing. The promise of a summit-level meeting was that the personal involvement of the U.S. president would break through these devil-in-the-details hindrances. Despite the Trump administration’s large talk about CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization) or being “in love” with Kim, Trump was still unable to get the North Koreans to leap over the morass of detail into a firm denuclearization commitment. The North has still not committed to CVID (or anything even close) and is unlikely to do in the future.
To be fair to the North Koreans, the blame for much of this false perception of movement by North Korea lies with Trump and Moon. In the run-up to the Singapore meeting, Trump put little work or effort into the planning and details. Even just a few weeks out, it was still unclear if the meeting was even going to happen. Trump certainly enjoys and even provokes that sort will-he-or-won’t-he sort of drama. It was great TV of course. But it also pretty clearly undercut the substance of the meeting. Trump agreed to the summit less than three months before it happened. He did not prepare, and no one even knew if it would occur until a few weeks beforehand. That sort of organizational chaos all but insured an anodyne outcome.
The problem was Trump’s follow-up. Ever prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, Trump insisted in sympathetic media back home that he had solved the problem. Pro-Trump media outlets were too dedicated to the president to vigorously question his claims, and for months the vague notion that progress was underway with North Korea floated around America. There were indeed some small steps—such as the return of U.S. soldiers’ remains from the Korean War and inter-Korean family reunions. But these were never substantial movement on the strategic issues, where the U.S.-North Korea process settled into a familiar stalemate. There has been almost no movement on the core issues—nuclear warheads and long-range missiles—and if this report shakes the U.S. media into greater recognition of that, that is progress.
Moon must carry some of the blame too. His government has spent all year making increasingly extravagant claims about progress with North Korea. Posters and imagery of Moon and Kim holding hands have been put up. Books and pamphlets have been released calling this the start of a new era. The South Korean media has been almost over-the-top in declaiming how much things have changed. I find myself increasingly appearing on panels here in South Korea where I am the lone “hawkish” voice saying that actually far less has changed than most people seem to think.
The Moon administration response to CSIS has been that these bases are nothing new, that all was understood beforehand. While this is formally true, it is also somewhat duplicitous in that the Moon government has unleashed a torrent of upbeat, North-Korea-is-changing talk all year, creating the widespread impression that surprises like this were not in the mix. The more accurate answer is that Moon does not see North Korean nuclear weapons as such a great threat, because inter-Korean détente will reduce tensions and, inter-alia, dissipate that threat.
In short, neither the Moon nor Trump governments have been fully honest here. Both have overhyped the little progress made. Both have omitted, ignored, or otherwise danced around the many crucial areas where North Korea has not moved at all—nuclear warhead, missiles, and human rights specifically. There is still room and time for a deal with the North. But much of this year has been lost on pageantry, symbolism, and fluff. Summitry with North Korea has likely failed: after a year, neither Moon nor Trump has managed to pull a big-bang deal out of Kim, despite giving him the unprecedented prestige and normalization that such one-on-ones confer on a small, decrepit authoritarian state. The time has come to kick the negotiations down to the expert level where the details can be decided outside the limelight of this year’s heavy media attention.
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 at his website. He tweets at @Robert_E_Kelly.