What Happened with North Korea

The North Korean peace and assumed denuclearization plans appear to be unraveling at a rapid clip. Will a second rumored Trump-Kim summit help?

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump during part of the June 12, 2018 summit in Singapore.

When Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un completed their June 12, 2018 meetings in Singapore, it certainly sounded like North Korea had made a major shift towards a lasting peace. Shortly after the summit, Trump referred to the “number one statement” in the document he and Kim had signed together, that “we will immediately begin total denuclearization of North Korea” as its major success. He famously spoke that “there [was] no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea”. Trump even provided North Korea with an unexpected gift after the event, the cancellation of the latest of the scheduled South Korea-U.S. joint war games exercises that was supposed to take place later in the summer. Trump also spoke of the “very strong relationship” both he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has established with Kim Jong Un, one that would bring them all “tremendous success”.

If all that’s true, how did we go from that to military intelligence sources showing North Korea had increased construction of nuclear development facilities since the summit? What happened so that, after the visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to North Korea just a few days ago? After those, first Pompeo sounded a positive note saying the two sides had made “progress” in “productive” meetings. Yet hours later, a North Korean spokesperson called those talks “regrettable” and angrily attacked the U.S. for “gangster-like” demands to force the country to give up its nuclear weapons? What went wrong?

Some blame a long-standing pattern of North Korea having appeared to agree to a variety of peace conditions, then eventually ignoring them. In multiple cases over more than 20 years, for a moment at least, the world seemed like it could be a more peaceful place after some historic talks had taken place. In 1994 President Bill Clinton announced a “framework with North Korea” under which “North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program”. In 2007, under pressure from sanctions and a set of 6-party talks (with North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S.), President George W. Bush said that “North Korea pledged to disable its nuclear facilities” and the country “pledged to declare its nuclear activity” as a sign of good faith. After both promising beginnings, North Korea pushed forward with its nuclear development program, created numerous inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear warheads, and held many nuclear test events.

North Korea has now passed just developing nuclear weapons to deploying them. During 2017 there were multiple warhead tests and ICBM launches, including at least one launched from an ocean-based platform. The UN Security Council responded with tighter sanctions on the country. Though those sanctions leaked in many ways, via North Korean shell companies set up to do trade and via its strategic partners in Russia and China, North Korea clearly felt pain from them. Trump’s saber-rattling in 2017 and early 2018 about the U.S. possibly launching an attack on the country put some pressure on as well, even as the world feared what might happen if the U.S. and North Korea were ever to go to war.

Then something happened. Behind the scenes, Kim Jong Un seemed to soften his bellicose nature and Trump eased up on some of his rhetoric. North Korea and South Korea gathered together in their own peace talks, calling for an end to 7 decades of cold war between the two countries. The two Koreas cooperated on the Olympics. Kim and Chinese President Xi also met, in secret, allegedly about peace developments in the region. Eventually, rumors of a potential face-to-face meeting between Kim and Trump emerged. It looked like Trump’s erratic pronouncements of potential warfare might have forced Kim to back off his ever-escalating threats to the West.

When the Singapore summit took place, it did have the look of a reality show. Tightly choreographed negotiating scenes, walks in a garden with Kim and Trump, and even a Hollywood-style mini-movie Trump had made that showed “a wonderful life” for North Korea were unveiled. It seemed a tremendous success even if the resulting documents both parties signed needed a lot more structure to get to a conclusion.

Now, less than a month later, much of what the world thought it saw happen at that summit -- and heard about after from the Trump administration and even Kim himself -- seemed to be going the wrong way.

A first clue to what might have gone wrong had to do with the agreement the two parties signed on June 12. While Trump recalled the agreement not long after it happened as including a promise for the denuclearization of North Korea, that is not what the document said. Besides that the “number one statement” Trump had referred to had nothing to do with denuclearization, the actual phrase Trump was searching for called out that “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” North Korea never committed to a single-sided denuclearization plan in the document. It also only committed “to work towards complete denuclearization” as opposed to committing to denuclearize on any given time schedule.

That language is an important distinction and possibly a major part of why the discussions are going badly now. Even if North Korea does intend to move towards denuclearization, they signed off on doing it as part a process which involves the entire Korean Peninsula. That would at least mean South Korea must remove any nuclear threats on its soil. It might also mean that a condition of North Korea’s dismantling its nuclear program would include removing any nuclear threats in the Peninsula region. That could include U.S. bases, aircraft, warships and its own weapons.

If that’s what North Korea thought, that it had committed only to a Peninsula-wide agreement for denuclearization, it certainly would explain North Korea’s spokesperson rejecting Pompeo’s visit as “gangster-like” with its focus on unilateral disarmament by North Korea alone. Kim would also be understandably confused by the latest Pompeo salvo, especially after Trump had so graciously conceded to part of the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” by dropping the military exercises with South Korea this year.

This would also explain why military reconnaissance satellites showed North Korea was continuing work on its nuclear facilities and missile manufacturing sites. For North Korea, it was business as usual to do this until a broader disarmament plan was brought forth.

On Trump’s side of the negotiations, there are several potential issues which made all this go the wrong way so fast. First is that it appears -- from all he has said since – that Trump thought Kim agreed to unilateral disarmament. He didn’t, as this weekend’s pronouncements made clear. Second is that even with the best of assistance and both parties paying careful attention, there were some difficult language barriers between the two discussions.

Third is that there are also some differences in how the two countries look at the agreements they signed. Kim may have seen it as a starting point and Trump may have seen it as a contract. In other Asian countries, such as Japan, for example, contracts are always far less powerful than the personal commitments of the signers to work things out. That this might be part of what happened here could be supported by North Korea’s Foreign Ministry saying that Kim Jong-un still thinks highly of the “friendly relationship and trust” built between him and Donald Trump back in Singapore, despite Pompeo’s recent seemingly outrageous demands.

Last and potentially most serious is that what Trump thinks Kim signed up to after the summit, regardless of what’s in the document they endorsed, could be very different to what Kim believes. Without time and a lot of work involving aides experienced in negotiations with North Korea, few of which Trump has around let alone listens to, this will be tough to figure out. It also seems that Kim, like Trump, tends to react emotionally to such negotiations. This makes it even harder to get past accidental misunderstandings and move on to a more positive next phase.

Kim is apparently serious about reconnecting with Trump soon. Kyodo News reported from multiple diplomatic sources this weekend that North Korea has sent a diplomatic team to Geneva, Bern and Davos to find a place for denuclearization talks to continue. Presumably that would be happening soon. Based on the current pronouncements from North Korea, it is also likely Kim will want Trump to show up as part of those discussions. Whether Pompeo would even be welcomed is not clear.

Prior to those meetings, Trump and his team is clearly going to have to do a lot more homework to plan the discussions. This time, though, he is going to have to do something he has not proven very good at while in office. Somehow, he is going to have to lead these negotiations and drive to a close.