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North Korea Round 2: What can Trump deliver this time?

Why We Wrote This

When the goal is nuclear disarmament, it seems there should never be a bad time for summitry. Yet there are worries that an American president hungry for home-pleasing news could accept a bad deal.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Trump (r.) reaches to shake hands with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore, June 12, 2018. North Korea says Mr. Kim has ordered preparations for a second summit with Mr. Trump.

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Few were surprised when the White House announced Friday that President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will meet again in February. But most Korea and nuclear proliferation analysts part company with the administration over its characterization of the second summit as an opportunity to “build on the progress” made in Singapore last June. At the first summit, “unfortunately, Trump got nothing,” says Bruce Klingner, a longtime CIA Korea analyst now at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “There has been no progress since Singapore, so the risk is that we end up with a second summit that is once again just style over substance.” North Korea has continued developing its nuclear arsenal and missiles at dozens of sites across the country, experts point out. Some say the summit makes sense from a US political perspective. But Mr. Trump’s need for a positive outcome is a top concern for analysts: that the “America First” president could accept what some are calling an “America only” deal with Pyongyang. One example? Trump settles for nipping North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program in the bud, in the interest of safeguarding the American “homeland,” while leaving the North’s shorter-range missiles threatening South Korea and Japan untouched.

President Trump loves to play golf, so he should understand when some describe the second summit he plans to hold with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un next month as a “mulligan.”

In the parlance of recreational golf, a mulligan is a redo, a second attempt generously granted when a first shot is badly whiffed or otherwise doesn’t end up so well.

“Trump, an avid golfer, might claim that first summit as his mulligan,” says Bruce Klingner, a longtime CIA Korea analyst who is now a Korea and Japan specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But he can’t afford to land in the rough or get outplayed again in his second match with Kim Jong-un.”

Few were surprised when the White House announced Friday that Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim will meet again in February, less than a year after the two leaders’ groundbreaking Singapore summit last June. The administration had been hinting for weeks that a second summit was likely in the first quarter of 2019. (The location of the second summit has yet to be announced, although Vietnam is widely seen as a likely venue.)

But most Korea and nuclear proliferation analysts part company with the administration over its characterization of the second summit as an opportunity to “build on the progress” made toward North Korea’s “final, fully verified denuclearization” in the seven months since Singapore.

On that score there has been no progress, they say. “You don’t give away a first summit with an opponent for nothing, and unfortunately, Trump got nothing,” Mr. Klingner says. “There has been no progress since Singapore, so the risk is that we end up with a second summit that is once again just style over substance.”

What worries some experts is that Trump may settle again for a summit with few or no serious denuclearization steps – even as he agrees to give Kim concessions he seeks but which risk sowing fears of abandonment among regional allies like South Korea and Japan. “There are a number of scenarios for either a successful or an unsuccessful second summit,” Klingner says, “but the real disaster would be if Trump gives away more concessions, particularly in terms of the US involvement in regional security.”

At the first summit, experts say, Trump accepted a communiqué that used far more vague language than previous agreements the US has struck with the North. And Trump has curtailed US-South Korea joint military exercises, to Kim’s great satisfaction.

North Korea did indeed suspend the nuclear testing and missile launches that fueled the pre-Singapore war of words between Trump and Kim. In the eyes of some analysts, that’s progress to build upon.

“Just the fact that both sides have agreed to a second summit is a clear step in the right direction, far from the days of ‘fire and fury’ threats or missile tests,” says Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest. “Now the hard work begins. Both nations must now show at least some tangible benefits from their diplomatic efforts during a second summit, or risk their efforts being panned as nothing more than reality TV.”

Mr. Kazianis says he’s hopeful the two sides can come to an “interim agreement” – for example, closing the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for some initial sanctions relief – that would allow for something to build on going forward.

North Korean operations

Since the first summit, however, North Korea has continued developing its nuclear arsenal and missiles, and stockpiling nuclear fuels, at dozens of sites across the country, experts point out.

Indeed, some of those secret sites were revealed publicly by think-tank researchers following Friday’s announcement of a second summit.

“The inconvenient truth for the Trump administration is that the North Koreans are not putting their nuclear and missile programs fully on the table, so [the US negotiators] are still not working with a full data declaration even while the stated goal remains full and verified denuclearization,” says Victor Cha, a former White House director for Asian affairs who now holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Dr. Cha is one of the authors of a CSIS report released Tuesday that claims to reveal nearly two dozen undeclared and secret ballistic missile bases and development sites in North Korea – including one base about 160 miles north of Seoul, the South Korean capital, which the report says is the headquarters of the North’s strategic missile force.

Cha’s group released another list of what it called secret nuclear and missile sites in December, which Trump quickly blasted as “fake news” – not because they don’t exist, but apparently because the sites are not all “secret” to US intelligence agencies.

But North Korea’s unwillingness to declare the full extent of its existing sites and capabilities gets to the crux of the problem the US faces, Cha says.

Political value

The North Koreans “are very interested in negotiating, but the key question here is, with what do they want to negotiate?” he says. “They’re willing to negotiate about future capabilities and future production, and then about past capabilities – in other words, things they don’t need anymore.

“What they’re not putting on the table,” Cha adds, “are their existing capabilities and stockpiles – and that’s the inconvenient truth.”

A second summit in February seems ill-timed to those who say there is no progress to build on. But to others it makes sense from a US political perspective, especially since much of Trump’s base sees Singapore as a shining success – and since an embattled president may be keen to enhance that perception.

“Things were bogged down, but then the North Korean leader came out with his December statement and his New Year’s Day address that Trump liked for some reason, and that gave energy to the process,” Cha says. “The timing was fortuitous for Trump. He’s dealing with the shutdown, Syria, Mueller and the whole Russia investigation, and a hostile Congress, so he kind of needs something,” he adds. “And that’s when [Kim] offered an opportunity to try to move forward.”

In announcing the second summit, the White House cited as progress North Korea’s release of American “hostages,” but no mention was made of progress on the North’s denuclearization – which national security adviser John Bolton had once said could be completed within a year.

Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders did say, however, that the US would maintain sanctions on North Korea until denuclearization is complete. That sets up a tough bargaining session with Kim, given persistent reports that sanctions relief is the North Korean leader’s top goal.

An America-only deal?

Clearly Trump wants a second summit to show progress. And it’s that need for a positive outcome that is emerging as a top pre-summit concern for analysts (and, indications are, for some US diplomats and intelligence officials as well): that the “America First” president could accept what some are calling an “America only” deal with Pyongyang and declare it a success.

One example? Trump settles for nipping North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program in the bud, in the interest of safeguarding the American “homeland,” while leaving the North’s shorter-range missiles threatening South Korea and Japan untouched.

An ICBMs-only deal “would be decoupling of US security in a narrow sense from the security of our allies and America’s broader security interests, and decoupling is exactly what the North Koreans want and the Chinese would like,” says Cha. “The North Koreans want to show the South Koreans that ‘the Americans don’t care about you,’ and the Chinese would love it because it would weaken our alliances in Asia.”

Feeding the concerns about an America-only deal are signs that the renegotiating of the deal that keeps about 28,000 US troops in South Korea is not going well. Under the current five-year deal, South Korea pays about $850 million annually toward the cost of hosting US forces. The Trump administration initially wanted Seoul to double its contribution, but lowered its demands when the South Koreans balked. Those talks continue.

Another source of worry are repeated statements from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the administration is seeking a deal with North Korea that delivers a “safer America” – no mention of America’s allies or regional security.

Ideally, a second summit would deliver a full declaration of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities and sites, agreement on a clear and unambiguous definition of denuclearization, and a “robust verification regime” for ascertaining the data declaration, says Klingner from Heritage.

But just as important is what the summit should not include, he adds. There should be no peace declaration with the North at this point, no ICBMs-only deal, no agreed reduction in US forces in the region, and “no sanctions relief until the behavior that tripped those sanctions is eliminated.”

If Trump’s second summit with Kim makes some people nervous, it’s because America for the first time has a president who Klingner says “questions the utility of our alliances and of stationing US troops overseas” and who seems capable of accepting a deal that many others say shouldn’t even be on the table.

“Any kind of threat from North Korea you can reduce is a good thing, but if it comes at the expense of our allies and our forces on the ground there, that’s not a good thing,” says Klingner. “You don’t want to sacrifice the security of our allies and the security of our forces there on the altar of security for the homeland.”

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