As President Trump welcomed home three Americans released from captivity in North Korea, he beamed with optimism about a diplomatic breakthrough with the world’s last Stalinist dictatorship. “We’re starting off on a new footing. This is a wonderful thing that he released the folks early,” Mr. Trump said referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“I really think he wants to do something, and bring that country into the real world,” he said about his upcoming summit in Singapore with Mr. Kim. “I really think a lot of progress has been made … some great things can happen.”
The road to Singapore is going to be a much rockier one than Mr. Trump’s buoyant talk suggests. Mr. Trump has said that he’ll accept “nothing less” from North Korea than “full denuclearization.” But, as a new statement issued by North Korea’s foreign minister made clear, the chances that Mr. Trump will walk away from the summit with Mr. Kim accepting anything like that are slim.
North Korea’s diplomatic charm offensive camouflages a harsh reality: North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. It never did.
There have been encouraging signs in recent months of a thawing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Images of North Korea’s leader clutching hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in as they stepped across the border between the two countries was a powerful symbolic gesture. And, North Korea’s announcement of plans to decommission its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri is a further positive sign. But, North Korea’s diplomatic charm offensive camouflages a harsh reality: North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. North Korea says it’s willing to discuss denuclearization. But, what Pyongyang means by denuclearization is something different than the complete dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program President Trump is talking about. As the summit nears, Pyongyang is making this increasingly clear.
In a harshly worded statement, North Korea’s foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, threatened to pull out of the summit altogether if the U.S. continued to insist on the North’s unilateral nuclear disarmament.
“[W]e are no longer interested in a negotiation that will be all about driving us into a corner and making a one-sided demand for us to give up our nukes, and this would force us to reconsider whether we would accept the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting,” he said.
The statement highlights the fundamental challenge Mr. Trump will face when he meets North Korea’s leader in Singapore next month. For Mr. Trump, the upcoming talks are about removing North Korea’s nuclear capability. For Mr. Kim, they are about leveraging his newly-minted status as the leader of a nuclear power to extract concessions from the United States. This mismatch in expectations raises the risk that the summit goes sideways.
Mr. Trump believes that his “maximum pressure” campaign towards North Korea has primed Pyongyang to strike the disarmament deal that eluded his predecessors. His new National Security Advisor, John Bolton outlined what such a deal might look like.
“We have very much in mind the Libya model from 2003, 2004,” Bolton said in an April interview with Fox News. “There are obviously differences. The Libyan program was much smaller. But that was basically the agreement that we made.”
North Korea’s foreign minister bristled at that idea. A deal modeled on Libya, he said a recent statement, is “an awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”
The White House is now distancing itself from Bolton’s comments. “I haven’t seen that as part of any discussions, so I’m not aware that that’s a model that we’re using,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday.
The Libya deal is hardly hardly a model that North Korea wants to imitate. Under that agreement, Libya gave up its nuclear program, and eight years later the country found itself in the grips of a civil war in which Libyan President Muammar Gaddhafi was overthrown by rebels backed by American air strikes and murdered in the most gruesome way possible. From Kim’s perspective, Libya is not a model, but a cautionary tale.
“The world knows too well that the DPRK is neither Libya nor Iraq, which have met a miserable fate,” North Korea’s foreign minister added.
An example that involves a leader giving up his nuclear program only to be deposed with America’s help and then dragged from the drainage ditch he was forced to hide in and repeatedly stabbed in the butt with a bayonet hardly inspires confidence. Avoiding a similar fate is exactly why Mr. Kim believes he needs nukes in the first place.
“Kim looks at the world and he sees that Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program, he’s dead, his regime is gone. Saddam never had nuclear weapons, he’s dead, his regime is gone,” former defense secretary Robert Gates said in an interview with “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan.
North Korea argues that, unlike Libya, it has a fully developed nuclear capability and therefore should be reckoned with on its own terms.
“It is absolutely absurd to dare to compare the DPRK, a nuclear weapons state, to Libya, which had been at the initial stage of nuclear development,” Mr. Kim, the North Korean foreign minister, said in his statement.
Pyongyang is not going to relinquish its nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and and a little economic assistance as some Trump officials have suggested. North Korea’s foreign minister says that it has no intention of “abandon[ing] nuke” in exchange for economic compensation.
When North Korea says it is willing to pursue the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, it means something entirely different than unilaterally giving up its nuclear weapons. For Pyongyang, denuclearization likely means removing the U.S. military presence from the Korean Peninsula and rescinding the protection of the US nuclear umbrella from America’s regional allies like Japan and South Korea. Both would probably be be a non-stater for the US and its allies.
North Korea may agree to some sort of aspirational statement about giving up its weapons at some point in the future. It may also make some concessions, such as agreeing to halt further nuclear tests — something it says it no longer needs to do anyway since it considers its nuclear program complete. The best Mr. Trump is likely to get out of Mr. Kim is something like the Iran deal, an agreement of which Mr. Trump doesn’t think that highly.
But, it bears noting that North Korea has a long history of agreeing to things and then almost immediately violating the agreement. In 2008, North Korea blew up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor to much fanfare as a concession to the U.S. It made for dramatic TV footage, but it had little practical effect. They simply used water pumped from a nearby river to cool the reactor instead.
Mr. Trump isn’t the first President to enter office with expectations of a grand bargain on the Korean Peninsula. But, as his predecessors learned the hard way, North Korea is where Presidential aspirations of diplomatic greatness go to die.
While the odds are long, if Mr. Trump actually manages to get North Korea to give up its nukes, it will be a historic diplomatic achievement for which Mr. Trump will deserve substantial credit — and maybe even a Nobel Peace prize.