Donald Trump hadn't said much about North Korea since returning from his trip to Singapore in early June and declaring that the threat posed by the country's nuclear-armed missiles had vanished. That all changed on Monday morning—with potentially deadly consequences.
"I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake," Trump noted. "We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea," he added.
No doubt the president had seen coverage of the North Korean Foreign Ministry's July 7 statement on his secretary of state's trip to Pyongyang. Mike Pompeo walked away from Pyongyang with an empty hand and with little clarity on where the process that began on June 12 in Singapore is headed.
North Korea, meanwhile, chided the "regretful" U.S. attitude, criticizing Pompeo for having the gall to come to Pyongyang and continue to insist on North Korea's unilateral disarmament.
The Foreign Ministry took aim in particular at Pompeo's “gangster-like demands for denuclearization just calling for CVID, declaration, and verification, all of which run counter to the spirit of the Singapore summit meeting and talks.”
Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang laid bare the tension that many Korea-watchers and experts had promised would come since March 8—the day Trump accepted Kim's invitation to meet face-to-face. Trump thinks Kim is going to give up his nuclear weapons despite Kim having never said he would do so.
Take Trump's comment for instance that in Singapore, the two countries agreed to “the denuclearization of North Korea.” If that's the case, it wasn't reflected in the short document that Kim Jong Un signed on to, which was far from any sort of legally enforceable "contract." The Singapore declaration only promised that North Korea would “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The phrase “complete denuclearization” appeared also on April 27 in the Panmunjom declaration signed by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. At that meeting, the two Koreas had confirmed that this was their “common goal.”
Whatever this phrase means in the 2018 diplomatic context—and interpretations vary among experts—it categorically does not mean what Trump and Pompeo have taken it to mean. It does not, for example, mean that Kim has agreed to the “finally, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.” (This was the State Department's formulation days before Pompeo set out to Pyongyang.)
No matter how many times Trump or Pompeo repeat it, North Korea has not agreed to give up its nuclear weapons. Sooner or later, that'll sink in. It won't matter how many times Pompeo heads to Pyongyang to sit across the table from his North Korean counterparts as long as the starting point for the U.S. negotiating position is the assumption that Kim is ready to discuss the price for the keys to his nuclear kingdom.
This is where the first part of Trump's tweet comes in—and how we may be witnessing the prelude to disaster.
In the president's mind, Kim is backing out of a gentleman's agreement to denuclearize—one sealed in by that holiest of macho deal-making rites, the handshake. Monday's tweet is suggestive of a growing impression that Trump is starting to interpret Kim's treatment of Pompeo as a sign of bad faith.
None of this is true, of course. North Korea has deceived the United States in the past, but not this time. Weeks before the summit, Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea's first vice minister of Foreign Affairs, made it crystal clear that the Kim-Trump meeting could not proceed “if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment.”
Kim underlined that North Korea’s nukes provided a security assurance to the regime that was effectively priceless, repudiating any cash-for-nukes denuclearization deal, too: “The U.S. is trumpeting as if it would offer economic compensation and benefit in case we abandon nuke. But we have never had any expectation of U.S. support in carrying out our economic construction and will not at all make such a deal in future, too.”
But no matter how clear North Korea has tried to make its negotiating position, Trump has not grasped the reality that Kim Jong Un is not giving up his nukes—no matter how convincing those handshakes in Singapore might have felt.
The concern now is how Trump will cope with the inevitable realization that “complete denuclearization” doesn't mean what he thought it meant. There are three possible futures—none good, but some less bad than others.
First, Trump could simply choose to shrug, continue to tweet that the North Korean threat has evaporated, and direct Pompeo to secure concessions in any way possible. This would be a likely path to appeasing Pyongyang, resulting in the United States giving up valuable leverage for virtually cosmetic North Korean concessions like the reversible dismantlement of tunnel entrances at the Punggye-ri nuclear site. North Korea has plenty of old and now out-of-use nuclear and missile sites it could happily detonate before the international press.
Second, Trump could simply allow the North Korea process that began on June 12 to quietly collapse and put the issue of its nuclear program and disarmament on ice—call it a return to “strategic patience.”
The problem here is that the administration's “maximum pressure” campaign is all but dead after the Singapore summit and it's more likely than not that China, along with Russia, will ease up on the implementation of existing sanctions and perhaps even call for a removal of United Nations sanctions applied in 2017 on North Korean exports.
In this scenario, the U.S. loses interest and North Korea benefits economically while continuing to build its nuclear program without constraints. This would be the equivalent of a continuation of the muddling-through approach that three consecutive U.S. administrations found themselves resigned to with North Korea, updated for the era of a considerably more capable North Korea.
Third, Trump could find himself left with nothing but the literal nuclear option. Feeling spurned and humiliated by Kim, Trump may find that the only way to move forward is to let John Bolton's March 2017 prophecy come true.
Weeks before entering the White House as Trump's advisor on national security affairs, Bolton, as a private citizen, had remarked on Trump's acceptance of Kim's invitation that “[The purpose of this process is to] foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste in negotiations that will never produce the result we want, which is Kim giving up his nuclear program.”
Gone would be the days of “all options” being on the table. Trump might conclude then that the only path to denuclearization is an all-out military strike on North Korea—a trigger to a nuclear war that would engulf Northeast Asia in tremendous destruction and likely parts of the U.S. homeland, given North Korea's intercontinental-range ballistic missile capability.
None of these scenarios are appealing, though the third is quite clearly the worst. Trump’s Monday tweet offers the clearest glimpse of why diplomacy-for-diplomacy's-sake with North Korea can be dangerous—even if it pulled us back from the brink of “fire and fury.”
The process with North Korea isn't over yet, though. If the administration recognized that the “denuclearization of North Korea” isn't on the table and readied itself to discuss a fundamental transformation in the nature of the relationship between the United States and North Korea, it may find that Pyongyang would be more willing to discuss arms control and risk management measures—including a production cap on ballistic missiles and fissile material.
In April, Victor Cha offered the ominous prediction that “the only thing after a summit is a cliff.” Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang may have kickstarted a slow lurch for the United States and North Korea toward the precipice.