Or: Another Day In The Trump Administration
There are two very different narratives of what is happening in the negotiations with North Korea.
- As Kim Jong Un promised in his New Year’s Day address, North Korea is building up its capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons and the missiles they might ride on. In the past week, we have seen evidence from the national intelligence agencies and independent analysts that there are at least two clandestine uranium enrichment plants, a missile manufacturing plant is being expanded, and related production is being expanded. This narrative is held by all the US intelligence agencies and most independent experts on North Korea and nuclear weapons.
- North Korea has agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program. Full denuclearization can be completed in a year or less. Kim and Donald Trump saw eye to eye at the Singapore summit. Kim wants to improve the North Korean economy, and he understands that only by giving up his nuclear program can he expect sanctions to be lifted. This is a victory for Trump’s policiy of “maximum pressure.” This narrative is held in public by Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton.
The revelations kept coming last week – The Korea-watchers at 38 North found evidence in satellite photos that existing buildings are being improved and new buildings added at the Yongbyon nuclear research site.
NBC cited “more than a dozen American officials who are familiar with [intelligence] assessments,” in reporting that North Korea is planning to deceive the American negotiators as to its nuclear capabilities and has at least two uranium enrichment sites besides the known facility at Yongbyon.
The Diplomat reported that US intelligence assesses that North Korea continued to produce support equipment and launchers for one of its newer ballistic missiles through the first half of 2018.
The Washington Post was told by “four officials who have seen it or received briefings” that the Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that North Korea does not intend to give up its nuclear weapons any time soon. Further, one of the uranium enrichment facilities is known as Kangson and is believed to have twice the capacity of Yongbyon.
The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California analyzed satellite images to show North Korea was finishing construction on the Chemical Material Institute in Hamhung. That institute makes solid-fuel ballistic missiles, more efficient and easier to use than the liquid-fueled missiles that have been their mainstay.
The disjunction in the two narratives is related to different interpretations of the word “denuclearization.” North Korea has used the word many times in the past. As President Barak Obama looked toward a future without nuclear weapons in his Prague speech, so North Korea looks forward to the day when nuclear weapons are no longer needed and the Korean peninsula can be denuclearized. To North Korea, that means removal of American troops and weapons from South Korea, along with other nuclear powers giving up their nukes.
When Trump and Pompeo use the word, they mean unilateral removal of North Korea’s nuclear program. They have not publicly indicated that they understand that North Korea means the word differently. Usually the first topic on the agenda for negotiations like this is to agree on definitions. It’s okay to differ on definitions during a negotiation, but that should be explicit, and the words that have no agreement should be used very carefully. In the last day or so, the US approach is described as “softening”, as Pompeo seems to have dropped the words “complete and verifiable denuclearization” (CVID). But nonuse of a phrase is a slim indicator, with no other evidence of a changed approach. A State Department spokesperson denies that there is a change.
The agreement that Trump and Kim signed in Singapore contains no detail. Four points make up the central part of the declaration.
- The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
- The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
- Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
- The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
Notice the vagueness: “commit to establish”, “join their efforts to build”, “commits to work toward”, “commit to recovering.” Point number 4 is the only one that comes close to describing action. Kim’s ramping up work on nuclear weapons violates nothing in the declaration.
Pompeo is preparing for his third trip to North Korea to discuss a timeline for denuclearization. Bolton said on the Sunday talk shows that eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program could take less than a year. The discussions with the North Koreans must be bizarre if this is what Pompeo is bringing to them.
We have to ask whether Trump and his people actually believe that North Korea is about to give up its nuclear weapons or they are trying to cover for a credulous President who has no idea how to negotiate international agreements. It could be a bit of both, too.
Trump has direct access to the information that has been leaked from the intelligence community and a lot more. But narrative #1 does not comport with what he has tweeted, which includes that all North Korean nuclear research had ended (11 June, 12 June), that the remains of American soldiers from the Korean War were on their way back or already here (11 June, 17 June), that “great progress” is being made on “the denuclearization of North Korea” (12 June), sites were closing (12 June), that we all can feel safer because there is no longer a “Nuclear Threat from North Korea” (13 June) and that we could “sleep well tonight!” (13 June), and that both sides were negotiating in good faith (13 June).
On Tuesday, he took note of the current news in a tweet. All of Asia is thrilled, and talks with North Korea are going well. He was correct that North Korea has not tested missiles or nuclear devices for the past several months, which may be a good will gesture or because they are happy with their designs and are moving toward production.
Arms control experts have been concerned that Trump would believe that North Korea planned to eliminate its nuclear weapons program, North Korea would do something to upend that belief, and Trump would respond angrily, egged on by Bolton. It appears, from today’s tweet, that Trump prefers to believe that the news of North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons program is “Fake News.” This is a better outcome in that it doesn’t lead to war, but it’s not clear how long Trump and his administration can deny reality.
Update: Pompeo is still saying it.