It all seemed so promising. The deal was there for the taking. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was willing to take an important first step on the long road to denuclearization by closing his main nuclear facility at Yongbyon. The Trump administration had softened its stance about lifting sanctions and was willing to provide partial relief up front. Both seemed to support a declaration ending the Korean War, an important symbolic step in bringing some normalcy to the U.S.-North Korean relationship.
Even hardened CIA analysts were waxing hopeful. “I can say that the stars have lined up,” said Andrew Kim, the former senior CIA officer who helped orchestrate the Singapore summit in June. “I have come to believe that we have a great window of opportunity to engage Pyongyang and resolve this long-standing North Korean nuclear issue once and for all.”
Maybe, but not yet.
“Sometimes you have to walk,” President Donald Trump said on Thursday, after talks in Hanoi, Vietnam, broke down. Trump said Kim was willing to close some but not all nuclear sites in exchange for the lifting of all international sanctions. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that,” Trump said. “They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we want, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.”
Trump said he and Kim had discussed the closure of Yongbyon, and Kim expressed a willingness to allow the facility to be dismantled. “He would do that but he wants the sanctions for that,” Trump said. “As you know, there’s plenty left after that. I just felt it wasn’t good.”
If Trump’s account is true (and with Trump one never knows), Trump was right to walk.
“President Trump’s decision to walk away from the summit with North Korea without an agreement was preferable to making a bad deal,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
North Korea contests Trump’s version of the story, saying that the North sought partial sanctions relief, not a complete lifting, and that it was Trump who demanded ‘one more’ measure at the close of the talks.
The sanctions are a critical bargaining chip and if Trump plays all his sanctions cards now for some nuclear sites he will have little left to trade toward eliminating the North’s nuclear weapons. And, importantly, Trump acknowledged publicly for the first time that there is a second enrichment site other than the one at Yongbyon.
Maybe there was a deal in hand and Trump tried to push for more at the last minute. Or maybe Kim pushed hard because he perceived Trump as weakened, hobbled by his own domestic troubles, the Mueller investigation, and hostile testimony in Congress by his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. If so, Kim needs to recalibrate his tactics and come back to the table with a more reasonable demand.
“The negotiator-in-chief has spoken,” said North Korea expert Joel Wit, in a tweet. “If the problem is how he described it—lifting all sanctions for just Yongbyon—I wouldn’t have done the deal either. Big question is what comes next on this roller coaster ride?”
In the days leading up to the second U.S.-North Korea Summit, the media was full of speculation that Trump might ‘give away too much’ or ‘get played’ by a savvy Kim. Trump himself was downplaying expectations, saying that he was in no rush for a deal. “As long as there is no testing, we’re happy,” Trump said, referring to the North’s year-long halt of nuclear and missile tests.
No one ever said nuclear diplomacy was easy, and both sides need to get back to work. The deal that could-have-been in Hanoi — partial nuclear closure for partial sanctions relief — would have been tangible and significant, and if achieved could set the stage for a denuclearized and more peaceful Korean Peninsula.
If North Korea agrees to stop producing materials for nuclear bombs at its Yongbyon site, it would be “a big, big deal,” said Siegfried Hecker, a leading nuclear scientist at Stanford University who has visited the complex four times. “I view Yongbyon as the heart of their nuclear program.”
Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, is the site of North Korea’s only source of plutonium, a key ingredient in making smaller, lighter and more powerful nuclear warheads. A cap on plutonium is effectively a limit on the number of warheads Pyongyang can build that are best suited for delivery by long-range missiles, and thus most threatening to the United States. The site is also thought to be the only source of Tritium, a key fuel for high-yield thermonuclear warheads.
Yongbyon is also a key site — but not the only site, as Trump confirmed — which produces highly enriched uranium, the other main bomb fuel. This material, which pound-for-pound produces less explosive yield than plutonium, fuels the majority of Pyongyang’s nuclear warheads.
Because there is another uranium site, closing Yongbyon will not end all bomb material production in North Korea. Nor will it reduce its existing arsenal, which is presumably not at Yongbyon. But it is a major step in the right direction. Former CIA officer Andrew Kim said that Yongbyon’s closure would “significantly reduce their capability to produce nuclear weapons.”
It remains unclear if Kim would be willing to go beyond this by disbanding his nuclear arsenal, or what the price would be. Closing Yongbyon is a good way to test Kim’s ability to significantly limit his arsenal. Last month, U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun said Kim had pledged to dismantle and destroy all of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium-enrichment facilities at “a complex of sites” extending beyond Yongbyon, if the United States reciprocates with measures of its own.
Some will say we have been down this road before, and they are partly right. The 5-megawatt reactor that makes the plutonium was shut down in 1994 under a deal by the Clinton administration. That deal lasted 8 years and prevented the production of about 100 bombs-worth of plutonium from 1994-2002. But then it was discovered that North Korea was developing a secret uranium enrichment plant, and rather than try to bring uranium into the deal, the George W. Bush administration (in particular, then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who is now Trump’s national security advisor) killed the agreement.
This was an historic mistake as history now shows. Since then, the North has withdrawn from the Nonproliferation Treaty, conducted six nuclear tests, including of a thermonuclear device, and produced enough nuclear material for about 35 bombs. As nonproliferation negotiators will tell you, it is much easier to stop a nuclear program before bombs are made, such as in Iran, than to reverse it once weapons already have been produced.
The Bush administration also squashed a promising diplomatic effort to stop the North’s missile development program — for no apparent reason other than it was started by Clinton. Amb. Wendy Sherman, former assistant secretary of state and, at the time, a special advisor to President Clinton who worked on the missile deal, reflected in her memoir, “I believe that Kim Jong Il was ready in 2000 to complete a deal over his missile program. Unfortunately, my country was not ready.” Pyongyang has since conducted dozens of missile tests, sold missile technology to Iran, and developed ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.
If the Bush administration had sought to save these agreements, North Korea would have neither a nuclear arsenal nor the long-range missiles to deliver it to U.S. territory.
Some call North Korea the ‘land of bad options,’ but it is more aptly called the ‘land of missed opportunities.’ Hanoi was another huge missed opportunity. There could have been a good deal, but the leaders failed. The world demands better, and Trump and Kim now must reset and try again. Solving the nuclear crisis in North Korea is too important to let it drag out any longer.