New commitments from North Korea fail to convince experts of intent to denuclearize

    South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, waves while walking with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a welcome ceremony at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. (Pyongyang Press Corps Pool via AP)

    President Donald Trump hailed the latest joint declaration between the leaders of North and South Korea as a sign of “tremendous progress” toward a denuclearized Korean peninsula, but experts on the region worry the president is overestimating Kim Jong Un’s commitment to a process his family has wriggled out of many times before.

    “Prior to becoming president, it looked like we were going to war with North Korea, and now we have a lot of progress,” Trump told reporters outside the White House Wednesday. “We've gotten our prisoners back. We're getting our remains back. They continue to come in. A lot of tremendous things. But very importantly, no missile testing, no nuclear testing. Now they want to go and put a bid in for the Olympics. No, we have a lot of very good things going.”

    Trump spoke hours after South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim signed off on a joint declaration in Pyongyang at their third summit this year. Speaking at a press conference after two days of bilateral meetings, Moon said he and Kim reaffirmed their commitment to “a Korean peninsula free of war” and predicted, “complete denuclearization is not far away.”

    “The North has agreed to permanently shut down an engine test site and missile launch pad in Dongchang-ri, in the presence of experts from the countries concerned. Contingent upon corresponding measures by the United States, the North will also carry out further measures such as the permanent dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility,” Moon said.

    “Contingent upon corresponding measures by the United States” is where things get complicated. Throughout this nuclear standoff, the White House has maintained North Korea must take significant, verifiable steps toward dismantling its nuclear program before any concessions are made.

    “The North Koreans have reiterated their preferred action-for-action approach on denuclearization and a peace regime on the Korean peninsula,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “The ball is now in President Trump’s court. He needs to decide if he is going to show interest or support for the corresponding steps.”

    North Korea has not explicitly detailed what those steps are, but Kimball assumes Kim is referring to commitments President Trump made during their first one-on-one summit in Singapore in June, including support for a declaration of the end of the Korean War.

    “I believe that this summit keeps the window of opportunity open for the U.S. and North Korea to get their stalled discussions on denuclearization and peace back on track,” Kimball said. “I’m slightly more optimistic this morning than I was yesterday, but not by much.”

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Wednesday the U.S. is prepared to "engage immediately" with North Korea in light of the Pyongyang summit. He has invited Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to meet in New York next week and representatives of Kim's regime have been invited to talks in Austria "at the earliest opportunity."

    "This will mark the beginning of negotiations to transform U.S.-DPRK relations through the process of rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021, as committed by Chairman Kim, and to construct a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula," Pompeo said.

    Much of the Pyongyang declaration focused on improving military and economic relations between the two Koreas. They have agreed to establish buffer zones along their borders and withdraw guard posts from the demilitarized zone. Moon and Kim also agreed to break ground on east-west rail connections and begin talks on joint economic and tourism zones.

    “All of those are going to require waivers, if not removal, of sanctions,” David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said of the new economic commitments. He added that the North and South might even seek the lifting of sanctions at the United Nations General Assembly session next week.

    Whenever North Korea makes a public gesture toward the prospect of shutting down its nuclear program, it inspires similar reactions: President Trump issues a victorious tweet while nonproliferation experts express cautious optimism tempered by the knowledge of the many previous times Kim or his father has reneged on such promises. This time has been no different.

    “Kim Jong Un has agreed to allow Nuclear inspections, subject to final negotiations, and to permanently dismantle a test site and launch pad in the presence of international experts,” Trump tweeted late Tuesday, calling the development “very exciting!”

    Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, called those tweets “dangerously flawed,” noting that Kim’s offer was vague and noncommittal. They also run counter to the hard line others in the administration have taken.

    “Trump’s tweets were really disturbing and out of touch with reality and I would argue very different from his foreign policy team working with Korea,” he said.

    Trump and Kim have exchanged pleasant correspondences, but talks between their subordinates have run aground amid claims of “gangster-like” demands and accusations of bad faith. In late August, President Trump announced Pompeo was canceling a trip to Pyongyang because “we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

    “In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!” Trump added at the time, placing the blame entirely on China.

    After these hiccups, Moon and Kim entered their Pyongyang summit eager to project an image of a unified commitment to peace on the peninsula. Among other things, they agreed Kim would make the first ever visit to Seoul by a North Korean leader within the year “barring extraordinary circumstances.”

    “This past spring, the seeds of peace and prosperity were sown on the Korean Peninsula. And today, this autumn in Pyeongyang, the fruits of peace and prosperity are maturing,” Moon said Wednesday.

    If Kim does permanently shut down the Yongbyon site and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to verify it, that may be considered a tangible step that merits U.S. concessions. Experts remain skeptical that will happen anytime soon, though.

    “If North Korea were to decommission its major nuclear facilities including the plutonium separation plant, the research reactor that produces the spent fuel, and its uranium enrichment facility, that would be a very significant step on the road to denuclearization,” Kimball said.

    The wording of Wednesday’s declaration does not go quite that far. The observation of “outside experts” is only offered for the dismantlement of the Dongchang-ri missile test site, not Yongbyon, and IAEA inspectors are not specifically mentioned.

    “North Korea, like they always do, they have set in place the seeds they can later use to break the agreement and blame either the ROK [Republic of Korea] or U.S. for doing something wrong,” Maxwell said.

    In the absence of a full inventory of North Korea’s weapons and materials, Manning remains unconvinced this offer is more sincere than the Kim regime’s past gambits.

    “I’m concerned all these steps they’re taking are part of a strategy not to denuclearize but to get the world to accept a nuclear freeze of their current program,” he said.

    Despite Kim’s conciliatory rhetoric and some cursory, reversible steps toward disarming, experts stress North Korea has not halted developing its nuclear weapons program, nor has it so far agreed to do so. Satellite imagery and media reports suggest production of nuclear materials continues.

    Some fear the quiet continuation of nuclear efforts signals Kim’s intentions more accurately than his laudatory public statements about cooperating with President Trump.

    “Their goal for a long time has been to be accepted like Pakistan as a de facto nuclear weapons state,” Manning said.

    According to The New York Times, current and former intelligence officials believe Kim has concluded good optics and a warm personal relationship will be enough to pacify Trump even as his scientists advance North Korea’s nuclear program.

    “The North Koreans continue to produce nuclear material. They’re probably producing advanced long range ballistic missiles. As President Trump tweets excitedly about the progress he’s achieved, he’s ignoring the fact North Korea is advancing its nuclear capabilities,” Kimball said.

    After the Singapore summit, President Trump canceled joint military exercises with South Korea, fulfilling one of Pyongyang’s frequent demands. According to Maxwell, Kim has offered relatively little in return: the remains believed to be those of U.S. soldiers returned so far are a fraction of the hundreds left behind after the Korean War, the Sohae launch site dismantled in July posed little threat to the U.S., and the tunnels at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site were likely ready to collapse before they were destroyed in May.

    “There’s good reason to be suspicious based on 70 years of the Kim regime,” Maxwell said.

    President Trump’s claim of “tremendous progress” may be overselling it, but there is no doubt things could, and recently have been, much worse.

    “The remarkable thing we shouldn’t lose sight of is almost exactly 12 months ago, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un were exchanging threats and conducting missile tests,” Kimball said, adding that it is still very possible for relations to slide back in the wrong direction.

    Seeking to prevent that backslide, Trump and Kim have both made overtures toward setting up a second face-to-face meeting that could occur as soon as this fall.

    “Thank you To Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other,” Trump tweeted last week after Kim left nuclear missiles out of North Korea’s 70th anniversary military parade.

    If a summit between heads of state is required to plow through an impasse in negotiations, experts say it is worth a shot.

    “A high-level meeting between the U.S. and North Korean presidents is a good idea if it cuts through bureaucratic red tape and it jump-starts denuclearization diplomacy,” Kimball said. “But it’s an incredibly bad idea if President Trump and the U.S. are not prepared and they don’t have a serious strategy.”

    Maxwell suggested the administration may be better served by allowing new special envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun to embark on preliminary negotiations before sending in the president. Another sit-down between Trump and Kim too soon risks reinforcing the dictator’s legitimacy on the world stage, but it could also produce a new agreement or a tangible timeline for disarmament.

    “A meeting that only enhances Kim’s reputationshould not be worth President Trump’s time,” Maxwell said.

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