By Neeti Upadhye
President Trump used to call the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, “rocket man.” But over time, Mr. Trump has changed his tune.Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
• July 4, 2018
WASHINGTON — When the North Koreans were shooting off missile tests and detonating new, more powerful atomic bombs last year, President Trump responded with threats of “fire and fury” and ordered the military to come up with new, if highly risky, pre-emptive strike options.
But since the one-day summit meeting last month in Singapore, Mr. Trump has done an about-face, while the North’s nuclear program has continued. “Many good conversations with North Korea-it is going well!” he wrote Tuesday morning on Twitter.
Even the recent revelations of seemingly modest North Korean progress on missile technology and the production of nuclear fuel — including continued work on a new nuclear reactor that can produce plutonium — have not dimmed Mr. Trump’s enthusiasm. He argues that they mean little compared to the new tone of conversations, and that even though North Korea has not disassembled a single weapon, his mission should be judged a success.
Turning the enthusiasm of the meeting in Singapore into a concrete, verifiable agreement is now the job of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is leaving Washington early Thursday for North Korea. It will be his third trip there, but the first to flesh out a timetable and a common understanding of what the Singapore commitment to “work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” really means.
Complicating the task is this: Mr. Pompeo, a former C.I.A. chief who knows the details of the North Korean program intimately and has solicited plans for how to accomplish his goals, must show that he can get the North Koreans to go far beyond the agreement his predecessor once-removed, John Kerry, achieved in negotiations with Iran. Mr. Trump has called that deal a “disaster” for years and pulled out of it two months ago.
Now, it looms over Mr. Pompeo’s talks.
By engaging Mr. Trump in the process of “denuclearizing” the Korean Peninsula, Mr. Kim may be calculating that the president would not dare walk away — especially after Mr. Trump noted before the summit meeting that “everyone thinks” he should win a Nobel Peace Prize, before modestly adding, “but I would never say it.”
Still, the test missile engine site that Mr. Trump told reporters was being dismantled still stands, satellite pictures show. And the C.I.A., among other agencies, has warned that the North’s strategy may now be to build up abilities that can be traded away later, hoping to maneuver Mr. Trump into accepting the country as a de facto nuclear power, and settle for concessions on the size and reach of Mr. Kim’s nuclear force.
Mr. Trump and his allies say that is nonsense; sanctions remain and Mr. Trump has not flinched from the goal of “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”
“There’s not any starry-eyed feeling among the group doing this,” John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, insisted Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” saying that most of the major steps toward denuclearization could be taken in a year. In private, Trump administration officials say, Mr. Bolton’s view is the same as it was before he joined the administration: that the North Koreans will never entirely give up their program.
The big question is whether Mr. Kim is truly ready to change course or playing for time with Mr. Trump — as his father and grandfather did with the past four presidents.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump is in sales mode.
Frustrated by the series of reports that the North is chugging forward, despite its “denuclearization” pledge, Mr. Trump boasted in a tweet on Tuesday that there had been “no Rocket Launches or Nuclear Testing in 8 months. All of Asia is thrilled. Only the Opposition Party, which includes the Fake News, is complaining.”
Then, with a Trumpian flair, he added, “If not for me, we would now be at War with North Korea!”
Mr. Trump is at least partly right: There have been no missile or nuclear tests since November, a freeze that many, including some Democrats, said was a necessary first step. But a freeze and denuclearization are completely different things.
Mr. Kim retains all of his nuclear abilities, and thus his leverage. He can resume testing any time. Just a year ago, Rex W. Tillerson, then the secretary of state, called that position insufficient because it merely perpetuated an ability to strike that Mr. Trump had, until recently, characterized as intolerable.
But it also reveals, in perhaps the most critical national security crisis Mr. Trump faces, his tendency to conflate a good meeting with a good outcome. It is as if President John F. Kennedy, meeting with the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev for the first time in Vienna in 1961, had declared the Cold War solved. The Cuban missile crisis broke open 16 months later.
Mr. Kim has already accomplished something, too. The heat has been turned down drastically, and the United States has, unilaterally, suspended military exercises with South Korea.
The Obama administration’s Iran agreement shadows Mr. Trump’s talks with the North.
The president regularly calls Iran a major nuclear threat, even though it no longer has enough fuel to make a single nuclear weapon. Under the 2015 agreement, it shipped 97 percent of its nuclear material out of the country. And it never possessed nuclear weapons.
Yet Mr. Trump pulled out after concluding that the United States gave away too much in return for an agreement that would gradually allow the Iranians to resume production around 2030.
The stark contrast between how Mr. Trump talks about Tehran, while insisting that the North is “no longer a nuclear threat,” will become harder and harder to sustain if Mr. Pompeo cannot get Mr. Kim on a rapid denuclearization schedule.
And Mr. Pompeo will need to achieve an inspection regime that provides assurance — not only to intelligence agencies but also to the public in South Korea, Japan and the United States — that the North is not hiding weapons, missiles or production facilities. The C.I.A. and the Defense Intelligence Agency believe that, today, it is hiding all three. So far, Mr. Pompeo has said nothing about the details he intends to present, and Mr. Bolton suggested that stories about new intelligence on the North’s improving its nuclear abilities only imperiled the diplomatic process. As a television commentator and columnist, Mr. Bolton often repeated similar reports when it came to building his case about how to deal with Pyongyang and Tehran.
One thing is clear, however: The Trump administration has not uttered the phrase “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” in weeks, and Mr. Pompeo has also softened his tone. Some administration officials say that South Korea urged getting rid of the everything-must-be-dismantled-immediately approach. And South Korean officials say that while Mr. Kim might not surrender his entire program anytime soon, he might dismantle parts of it, reducing his readiness to go to war.
“Perhaps the biggest diplomatic problem the U.S. will face, if we can get North Korea to agree to fully denuclearize, will be the timing of that denuclearization and how we verify the component steps,” William Perry, the former defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, wrote this week in Politico Magazine.
Mr. Perry, who negotiated repeatedly with the North, cautioned that “these steps will be complex, will take many months, if not years, and will require intrusive verification procedures.”
“But the U.S. has negotiated agreements equally difficult with the Soviet Union, so we do have a positive precedent,” he wrote.