Kim Jong Un Sends A Message To Trump On Denuclearization
In his annual message, Kim Jong Un sent a message to President Trump on denuclearization and the future of the Korean Peninsula.
One year ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gave a New Year’s Day address that appeared to signal the beginning of a new era on the Korean Peninsula. In that speech, Kim appeared to extend an olive branch to the Republic of Korea. For the most part the speech was filled with broad generalities regarding a more peaceful relationship with the Republic of Korea, however, Kim was specific regarding at least some of what he had in mind. This included small items such as North Korean participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics It was based on this speech that we saw the first joint talks between the two nations in nearly a decade. This eventually led to the surprise announcement that President Trump had accepted an invitation to meet with Kim at some point during this year, a summit meeting at the Demilitarized Zone between Kim Jong Un and South Korean Moon Jae In that has been followed up by several similar meetings between the two.
All of this led in June to the historic meeting between Kim and President Trump that the Administration and the North Koreans both hyped as a significant development even though it was clearly little more than a photo opportunity in which the two parties shook hands for the camera and signed off on a statement that ended up meaning far less than met the eye. Despite that, the President claimed that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat to the United States, the reality of what has actually occurred is far more complicated. On the positive side, I suppose, there’s the fact that the two nations are continuing to meet with each other rather than hurl heated rhetoric at each other via the DPRK’s state television network and the President’s Twitter feed. As Winston Churchill once put it, it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war. The main forum for those meetings has been discussions between Secretary of State Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol, a General who serves as the Vice Chairman of the DPRK’s Communist Party, acting as the chief North Korean diplomat, although the North Koreans have complained about what they call a “gangster-like” attitude among Americans. Additionally, as agreed at the meeting in Singapore, the North Koreans have turned over the suspected remains of more than 100 American and other soldiers who were killed during the Korean War and there have already been some successful identifications made from those remains.
When you look at the DPRK’s actions since the summit, though, it’s clear that there was not nearly as much progress as the Administration would like the public to believe. Right off the bat, for example, it became clear that there was no agreement on the part of the North Koreans to “denuclearize” in the manner that the United States understands it. Within weeks after the summit, for example, it was reported that North Korea was increasing production of the fuel needed to make additional nuclear weapons and that it was concealing the existence of ongoing nuclear weapons research at secret facilities well hidden from both surveillance and, most likely, the ability of the United States to take the sites out in a military strike. Additionally, it became apparent in the days after the summit that the much-publicized destruction of the DPRK’s primary nuclear weapons test site, a much-hyped pre-summit event that was witnessed by American and other international journalists was much less than met the eye and that the site could easily be rebuilt if needed in the future. Weeks later, we learned that the DPRK had also begun work on the construction of new ballistic missiles at yet another secret site.
As we sit here nearly six months since the summit, then, it is obvious that the reality of what had been accomplished at the summit did not meet the rhetoric. The actions that the DPRK as engaged in are not what one would expect from a nation that had agreed to “denuclearization” in the sense of giving up their existing nuclear weapons program. Additionally, analysts who have seen satellite images say that the DPRK has made a second large nuclear reactor operational. This type of reactor is capable of making plutonium which is, of course, one of the main fuels used in the production of nuclear weapons. This new reactor can reportedly make four times as much plutonium as North Korea’s current reactor, which has been the source for the plutonium needed for its nuclear arsenal to date.
Given all of that it’s perhaps not surprising that Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day message this year was much different:
Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, said Tuesday that he was willing to have a second summit meeting with President Trump, but he paired the offer with a threat that if international sanctions against his country were not lifted, the North would “have no choice” but to return to nuclear confrontation.
“I am willing to meet the United States president at any time for the betterment of our international community,” Mr. Kim said in his New Year’s Day speech, broadcast on North Korea’s state-run television. “However, if the United States does not keep its promise in our international community and misinterprets our patience and intention and continues with the sanctions, then we have no choice for the sake of our national interest and peace of the Korean Peninsula but to come up with new initiatives and new measures.”
Wearing a suit and tie and sitting in an overstuffed leather armchair in a book-lined room, Mr. Kim offered a largely motivational speech about the need to strengthen the North Korean economy. But he took the opportunity to reiterate a demand that South Korea cease all military drills with “other foreign sources.”
“Those should be completely stopped,” Mr. Kim said. “That is our stance.”
There were sparse direct references in the speech to denuclearization. But Mr. Kim said the country would not be willing to take further steps toward removing its nuclear weapons unless the United States reciprocated.
“The statements and agreements after the summit with the United States were that we are going toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and that is my resolute commitment,” he said. “We will not make nuclear weapons and we will not proliferate nuclear weapons, and I have said this, and I will say this again now.
“If the United States can show corresponding measures, the relationship between the two countries will, through many processes, accelerate for the better. But if the counterpart continues with its past habits, it won’t be good, but I hope they stop this.”
Mr. Kim also indicated that the North wanted a peace declaration formally ending the Korean War.
In declaring that he would not make nuclear weapons, Mr. Kim was going further than anything he said at his summit meeting with Mr. Trump in Singapore in June. North Korea made no explicit promise to “freeze” its program, and American intelligence officials have said that they believe North Korea has continued to produce the fuel for nuclear weapons — and likely the weapons themselves.
The distinction is a relatively minor one, because once the fuel is produced, fashioning it into weapons is no longer much of a challenge, as the North has proved through a series of nuclear tests that ended 13 months ago.
Mr. Kim’s demand that the United States begin to lift sanctions before North Korea takes any steps toward dismantling its nuclear infrastructure is essentially a return to the state of affairs when Mr. Trump took office early in 2017.
Mr. Trump entered the White House vowing he would not repeat the mistakes of his predecessors, who lifted some sanctions. Mr. Trump and his aides said the North would have to dismantle everything first and trust that sanctions would be lifted later.
Since the Singapore meeting, Mr. Trump has occasionally seemed to waver on the question of lifting some sanctions before the North dismantles its facilities and gives up its weapons and missiles. Now, with Mr. Kim’s demand, he must decide whether to back down — and take steps similar to those of his predecessors.
Analysts noted that Mr. Kim did not specify what exactly he wanted the Trump administration to do but was suggesting that removing some sanctions and moving toward a formal peace declaration to end the Korean War might prod the North to take certain steps toward denuclearization.
“Previous public and private comments from Kim and other North Korean officials suggest they would be willing to decommission the Yongbyon nuclear complex under expert supervision,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, referring to a plutonium reactor, spent fuel reprocessing facility and uranium enrichment plant.
At the root of all of this, of course, is the fact that the United States and North Korea do not mean the same thing when they use the term “denuclearization.” To summarize those differences, when the United States talks about “denuclearization,” it is principally referring to the idea that the goal of these current talks, indeed perhaps the only goal, is for the DPRK to give up its nuclear weapons, its weapons research program, and its ballistic missile program. Leaving aside the fact that the regime in Pyongyang is unlikely to do this simply because the existence of the nuclear arsenal they do have is perhaps the best deterrent available to guarantee the survival of the regime, this stands in stark contrast to what the North Koreans mean when they talk about “denuclearization.” For them, it means the removal of all American troops from South Korea if not the entire region, including Japan, and the lifting of the so-called nuclear umbrella that the United States has in place which essentially reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to any attack on its allies in Seoul, Tokyo, or elsewhere in the region. The North Koreans made this clear just a few weeks ago when the DPRK made clear that denuclearization is a non-starter unless the United States meets demands it clearly isn’t going to agree to regarding the status of American forces not only on the Korean Peninsula but elsewhere in the Pacific.
In his analysis of Kim’s New Year’s Day statement, New York Times reporter David Sanger notes that this essentially puts the Administration back at square one when comes to North Korea:
Nearly two years into his presidency and more than six months after his historic summit meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, President Trump finds himself essentially back where he was at the beginning in achieving the ambitious goal of getting Mr. Kim to relinquish his nuclear arsenal.
That was the essential message of Mr. Kim’s annual New Year’s televised speech, where he reiterated that international sanctions must be lifted before North Korea will give up a single weapon, dismantle a single missile site or stop producing nuclear material.
The list of recent North Korean demands was a clear indicator of how the summit meeting in Singapore last June altered the optics of the relationship more than the reality. Those demands were very familiar from past confrontations: that all joint military training between the United States and South Korea be stopped, that American nuclear and military capability within easy reach of the North be withdrawn, and that a peace treaty ending the Korean War be completed.
“It’s fair to say that not much has changed, although we now have more clarity regarding North Korea’s bottom line,” Evans J.R. Revere, a veteran American diplomat and former president of the Korea Society, wrote in an email.
By some measures there has been modest progress. It has been 13 months since the North tested a nuclear weapon or a long-range missile, a change that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo cite as the first fruits of what some officials now concede will be a long diplomatic push.
Relations between the two Koreas are warming, though there is considerable evidence that Mr. Kim sees his outreach to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea as a way to split the United States from its longtime ally.
But Mr. Trump’s strategic goal, from the moment he vowed to “solve” the North Korea problem rather than repeat the mistakes of past presidents, has been to end the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, not suspend it in place.
Mr. Trump dispatched his first secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, to Seoul in March 2017 to declare that a mere nuclear freeze would not be enough. Back then, Mr. Tillerson declared there would be no negotiations, and certainly no lifting of sanctions, until the North’s dismantling had begun. A nuclear freeze would essentially enshrine “a comprehensive set of capabilities,” he argued.
The decision Mr. Trump must make now is whether to backtrack on the objective of zero North Korean nuclear weapons even if that means accepting the North as a nuclear-armed state, as the United States has done with Pakistan, India and Israel.
Mr. Kim’s speech seemed infused with a sense that Mr. Trump is now facing that critical choice — one the president has never talked about publicly — at a moment of considerable internal disarray, especially at the Pentagon.
“Kim seems to be saying outright that his patience is running thin at the continued insistence on unilateral disarmament,” Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who follows North Korea closely, wrote in an email. “The stick was the threat to go down a ‘new path’ if the U.S. doesn’t reciprocate.”
As I have said before, there are things that could be accomplished if both the United States and North Korea approached these negotiations realistically. Tensions on the Korean peninsula, which have been on a razor’s edge since the end of the Korean War and ramped up significantly last year during the tit-for-tat exchanges that took place between President Trump and the North Korean leader, have calmed down significantly this year and making that more permanent would be a good thing. Additionally, more formal negotiations aimed at bringing the Korean War to a formal end should be pursued, as should agreements designed to ease the conventional arms standoff across the Demilitarized Zone. However, as I have noted before (see here and here), if the United States continues to insist that the ultimate goal of these talks is the idea that North Korea will give up its nuclear arsenal, then these talks are doomed to fail. Today, as the year of apparent detente on the Korean peninsula comes to an end, the North Korean government made that clear.