For decades, North Korea has been a source of frustration and failure for U.S. foreign policy. The Korean War ended with a ceasefire, a divided peninsula and North Korea as a totalitarian police state determined to one day subjugate the South.
The United States has maintained over 30,000 troops in the South ever since to help Seoul protect itself. The greatest threat has long been that North Korea would develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them as a means of coercing the South. Clear evidence that Pyongyang was trying to build such a capability goes back to the Clinton administration. Those efforts have succeeded and last year Pyongyang declared that the last, most potent components of its arsenal were in place — hydrogen bombs with an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States. North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong-un, trumpeted this achievement. Now America would not dare to intervene in a new intra-Korean conflict.
Washington, under several administrations, has mounted one diplomatic effort after another and one set of sanctions after another designed to persuade Pyongyang to change course. A succession of UN resolutions demanded that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile systems. Nothing has worked. Pyongyang, led by three generations of the Kim family, has been convinced that the only way to guarantee the survival of the regime and ultimately to subdue the South was to achieve a military capacity so intimidating that it could dictate terms to both Seoul and Washington. Neither the United States nor anyone else (including China) could persuade them otherwise.
The election of Donald Trump injected a wild card into this arena. Trump believes he is the greatest dealmaker the world has ever seen and that his negotiating skills enable him to solve problems that no one else can — like the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. He addressed the North Korean impasse with a volley of threats (“fire and fury”) aimed at Pyongyang. Then, with dramatic abruptness, he announced a diplomatic outreach that culminated in the “Singapore Summit” — the first meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea. The meeting was one-on-one and produced a brief public declaration that the two leaders had agreed to the full “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. Trump was effusive in congratulating himself for an “epochal event of great significance.” He immediately suggested he should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. His description of the conversation was vivid. “He trusts me and I trust him. I was really tough and so was he, and we went back and forth. And then we fell in love, OK? There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea!” Total victory. Trump triumphant!
Skeptical veterans of negotiations with North Korea were not so sure. They pointed out that the declaration that came out of the summit contained nothing concrete — no deadlines, no verification regime, no penalties for noncompliance and no agreed definition of “denuclearization.” When asked if there was any written account of what Kim had said, Trump responded that he had been too busy to take notes. Following the summit, Pyongyang did make two grand gestures. It halted missile test flights and it dismantled a missile test facility with a spectacular set of explosions before an assembled audience from the international press. Secretary of State Pompeo has repeatedly cited these two actions as proof that the administration’s strategy was working.
For its part, the White House ordered the suspension of scheduled military exercises between U.S. Marines and South Korean army units — exercises long objected to by North Korea. The President announced “We’ll be saving a tremendous amount of money, plus I think they are provocative” — exactly what North Korea has always claimed.
None of this would mean much if North Korea actually began concrete, visible steps to dismantle its nuclear and missile arsenal. The first step in that process would be a declared inventory of facilities and sites where such weapons are produced, maintained, supported and deployed. Without such a declared list, there is no basis to determine if denuclearization is real, much less complete. Pyongyang has avoided providing any such inventory and has, instead, demanded that the United States sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War — and removing any threat of a U.S. military attack on the North. The resulting diplomatic stalemate has gone on for weeks while the President tweets that everything is fine and on track.
At this critical juncture, a prominent Washington, D.C., think tank released an expert study of publicly available satellite imagery that revealed the existence of an extensive network of missile launch and support facilities hidden away in North Korea’s mountainous north. In addition, the study concluded that Pyongyang’s development, production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons was proceeding full speed. U.S. intelligence agencies have known all of this and more for some time. President Trump responded to the news stories with an aggressive dismissal — “nothing new … just more fake news!” Meanwhile, the sanctions pressuring North Korea are eroding as China and Russia have begun to ignore them, citing Mr. Trump’s claim that the problem has been solved. To cap things off, the White House announced that Mr. Trump will hold a second summit with Mr. Kim early next year — without requiring a North Korean inventory of its weapons programs.
For professional Korea watchers, the phrase “nothing new” can be turned against the administration. Once again America has been played for a sucker — Pyongyang has pocketed sanctions relief, a cessation of U.S. military exercises, increased international stature, and now a new summit in return for a temporary pause in missile tests and the destruction of one abandoned test facility — nothing more.
But everything is good — the President is “in love.”