It was a remarkable statement: “I don’t know if North Korea has made the choice yet to denuclearize,” a senior Trump administration official noted on Thursday, just days before Donald Trump is due to meet Kim Jong Un for a second summit that the president has touted as evidence of his success in ending the North Korean nuclear threat.
Eight months after the U.S. and North Korean leaders first met in Singapore, the official’s admission underscored that the key question looming over the next round of negotiations in Vietnam is still whether Kim will give up his nuclear program, not how he will do so.
“The reason why we’re engaged in this is because we believe there’s a possibility that North Korea could make the choice to fully denuclearize,” said the official, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity about the upcoming Trump-Kim meeting, on February 27–28. “And that’s why the president has assigned such a priority to engaging with them.”
It might not come as much of a surprise that Kim isn’t prepared to shake Trump’s hand in Hanoi next week and swiftly ship off all his weapons of mass destruction to Tennessee, as National Security Adviser John Bolton once proposed. Kim, his father, and his grandfather spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars developing a nuclear program that they’ve considered essential to ensure the endurance of their totalitarian regime. No nation with as sophisticated a homegrown nuclear arsenal as North Korea’s has ever given it up.
Just last month, Trump’s director of national intelligence told Congress that while Kim has demonstrated “openness to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” (a vague commitment he made during the Singapore summit), his government is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has often referred to the difficulty of impressing upon North Korea’s leaders that their nuclear weapons are a sword of Damocles rather than a security blanket.
But the lingering uncertainty about Kim’s intentions nevertheless makes clear that while the Vietnam summit might be full of grand gestures of goodwill and talk of denuclearization, what Trump, Kim, and their aides will be negotiating is far more basic. During Thursday’s briefing, the same administration official noted that the objectives of the Vietnam summit include U.S. and North Korean negotiators developing a “shared understanding of what ‘denuclearization’ is” and a “road map” for future talks. Another senior administration official said that the Singapore summit, which Trump once claimed had eliminated the nuclear threat from North Korea, was simply about “breaking the ice” between Trump and Kim.
This complicates the president’s portrayal of his North Korea diplomacy. At times, like his advisers, Trump has acknowledged that persuading Kim to renounce his nuclear weapons remains a work in progress. In other moments, he has suggested that the North Korean leader has already made that strategic decision.
“I really believe that” Kim will relinquish all his nuclear weapons, the president said in the afterglow of the Singapore summit, as he reflected on how well he’d gotten to know North Korea’s leader during their brief encounter. “He’s de-nuking the whole place. It’s going to start very quickly. I think he’s going to start now.” More recently, Trump has estimated that there’s a “decent chance” of North Korea denuclearizing and dismissed the notion that the North Koreans are “reluctant” to part with their weapons. “I think they want to do something,” he stated on Wednesday.
The daunting task facing the president and his aides is to convince Kim that he can’t achieve his twin priorities of keeping nuclear weapons and developing his economy, and must choose between the two. Successfully convincing Kim that he will ultimately be more secure ruling a denuclearized, economically prosperous North Korea would require massive concessions by the United States.
Chun Yung Woo, the national security adviser to former conservative South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, once surprised me by saying that he could envision a scenario in which North Korea actually gives up its nuclear weapons entirely, because Kim would likely retain the know-how, technology, and materials to reconstitute his arsenal in short order if he ever needed to. Yet Chun calculated the price for such a move as “the resolution of all North Korea’s existential problems—ending international isolation, security guarantees, a peace treaty, withdrawal of U.S. troops, the permanent termination of joint [U.S.–South Korea] military exercises.”
Speaking with reporters on Thursday, the Trump administration officials declined to go into detail about what concessions they’re prepared to make in Vietnam, though they said a drawdown of U.S. troops isn’t part of the current discussions. But one of the officials did say that the United States is ready to find ways to transform relations with North Korea and create “a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula” in addition to achieving denuclearization. The official said that the president is especially focused on conveying to Kim how North Korea could become an economic powerhouse if he cedes his nuclear weapons. (Last time, in Singapore, Trump sought to do this by showing Kim a faux movie trailer.)
In an interview with Fox Business Network this week, Pompeo conceded that the denuclearization of North Korea might seem like a long shot, but he argued that stranger things have happened.
“I remember I was a young soldier patrolling the East German border in 1989. No one anticipated that the [Berlin] Wall would come down on the day that it came down,” he said. “I think the work that we’ve done [with North Korea], the economic sanctions that have been in place, the negotiations that President Trump has led—I hope one day we all wake up and we get a moment just like the one that the world had in 1989.”
That moment could conceivably come the morning after the Vietnam summit, but the signs so far suggest that if it comes at all, it’s a long way off.