U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to members of the media on July 7, 2018 following two days of meetings with Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean senior ruling party official, before boarding his plane in Pyongyang.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to members of the media on July 7, 2018 following two days of meetings with Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean senior ruling party official, before boarding his plane in Pyongyang. AP PHOTO/ANDREW HARNIK

America’s Moment of Truth With North Korea Is Coming

Mike Pompeo’s visit wasn’t it. But the visit hinted at what it might look like.

One eight-word assumption underlies American and South Korean negotiations with Kim Jong Un: “North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons.” That’s what the analyst Cheon Seong Whun told me ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang this past weekend. For his part, Cheon, a security adviser in the conservative administration of former South Korean President Park Geun Hye, sees not a “scintilla of hint” that the North Korean leader is prepared to do so, despite Kim’s vague promise to Donald Trump in Singapore to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

At some point, now that the spectacle of Trump and Kim meeting is over, the American and South Korean leaders will have to judge whether the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program is really achievable, Cheon told me. “That is the moment of truth.”

The truth did not have its moment over the weekend in Pyongyang. But it did come under serious scrutiny for the first time since last month’s Trump–Kim summit. And it was tough to look at. Cho Yoon Je, the South Korean ambassador to the United States, told me last week that these negotiations are different than past, failed efforts because they aim to do more: make progress on denuclearization and simultaneously improve North Korea’s relationship with the United States and South Korea. The idea is that this approach will allow longtime adversaries to build enough trust to risk major concessions. It turns out, however, that even the effort to generate goodwill has become a source of rancor and disagreement. Pompeo’s meeting with his negotiating partner Kim Yong Chol, which yielded nothing concrete but an angry statement from the North Korean Foreign Ministry, revealed a fundamental dispute over which should come first or at least be prioritized in the give-and-take between North Korea and the United States: the better relations or the denuclearization.

To the North Korean Foreign Ministry, trust is paramount, and it comes primarily through building better relations. In its statement, the Kim government denounced Pompeo for pressing North Korea to disclose the various elements of its massive nuclear-weapons program and begin dismantling them in a manner that international inspectors can verify. Trump and Kim signed the same four-point joint declaration in Singapore, but whereas Trump tends to tout Point 3, the one concerning denuclearization, the Foreign Ministry’s statement focused on the first and second points, which deal with establishing a new relationship between the two nations and a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.” The Foreign Ministry argued that a speedy declaration of the end of the Korean War—perhaps occurring as early as later this month, on the anniversary of the signing of the 1953 armistice—would be a “first” step in “defusing tension” and “creating trust.” It exaggerated the moves the North has made so far on denuclearization, such as blowing up a nuclear-test site and promising to demolish a missile-engine test site without committing to verification of the destruction by independent experts.

In my conversation with Cho, who maintained that Kim may indeed be serious about giving up his nuclear weapons in exchange for economic development and security guarantees, the ambassador argued that parallel progress on new relations and denuclearization would be “mutually reinforcing.” Kim may be hedging on relinquishing his nuclear program because he hasn’t yet received “clear assurance of his regime security,” Cho reasoned, but a declaration to end the Korean War in the coming months could afford the North Koreans the reassurance they need to move toward full denuclearization and a final peace treaty. The Kim government might be less resistant to efforts to verify the dismantling of its nuclear program if it viewed the United States and South Korea as friends, he added.

Among the downsides of this approach, however, is that it requires the very drawn-out, years-long process that the Trump administration has sought to avoid as a fatal error of previous negotiations. As Cho noted, the United States and North Korea haven’t had a real relationship for 70 years, and it takes a long time to build one.

And if North Korea “focuses heavily or only on a peace regime and normalizing relations with the U.S. while pushing serious negotiations on denuclearization to much later … nuclear talks [could] become hostage to peace talks,” said Duyeon Kim of the Center for a New American Security. “Then we may end up signing peace with a nuclear-armed, economically vibrant North Korea that also enjoys normal relations with the U.S.”

Cheon argued that while a declaration to end the Korean War might seem like a valuable confidence-building measure that shouldn’t be opposed, the step could have unintended consequences—for example, intensifying the pressure to replace the armistice with a peace treaty even if North Korea hasn’t made corresponding nuclear concessions, and even if such a treaty would likely result in the North achieving its longstanding strategic goal: the end of the U.S.–South Korea military alliance. (Why keep U.S. forces in Korea if there’s peace on the peninsula?)

This past weekend, we witnessed not “a moment of truth,” but rather “what it’s like to negotiate with [the] North Koreans,” Kim told me, “and the process will be bumpy until [a] denuclearization agreement is reached and until it is fully implemented, if we are able to get there at all.” But Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang did hint at the clarifying moments that will inevitably come when, for example, it’s time for North Korea to reveal the full extent of its nuclear capabilities and allow external verification of its nuclear stockpiles and of its actions to dismantle the weapons program.  

Cheon said he hoped Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae In will recognize such moments of truth when they occur and shift their policies if necessary—to, for example, pressuring, deterring, and defending against a nuclear-armed North Korea if Kim proves unserious about giving up his nuclear weapons. And he thought both leaders were capable of changing course if their assumptions about Kim’s willingness to denuclearize are shown to have been wrong, though he had reservations about the American president. “Trump is linking this nuclear issue with his political agenda,” he observed, noting that the president had the 2018 midterm elections and 2020 presidential elections in sight.

On Monday, Trump dismissed the notion that his secretary of state’s rocky meeting in Pyongyang had been a reckoning and that North Korea was trying to deceive his administration. “I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake. We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea,” the president tweeted. And what if this turns out to not be true? Trump singled out who he might blame. “China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade,” the president continued. “Hope Not!”