It’s a pattern seen repeatedly over the past three decades: the U.S. and North Korea enter into promising nuclear arms control discussions, only to have Washington’s hopes deflated as North Korean political and military leaders choose to continue developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them.
At times of greater and lesser tension, under a variety of diplomatic labels, representatives of successive U.S. administrations have been sure that this time, finally, they had persuaded North Korea that its future is more secure without nuclear weapons than with them.
There were the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Agreed Framework, the Six Party Talks, missile limitation talks and more.
Each time that success seemed imminent, optimism turned out to be misplaced.
In 1991, for example, it was reported that the U.S. agreed to remove 100 nuclear weapons from South Korea. The following year, the two Koreas agreed to “denuclearize” the peninsula.
Then, North Korea went back to work on its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.
The pattern today is very little different, according to an expert from the Brookings Institution who spoke in Livermore last week.
The expert, Jonathan D. Pollack, presented his views to an audience at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Pollack is a prominent East Asia scholar and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, a public policy organization in Washington, D.C. He is a former director of the John Thornton China Center, as well as a former professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
Despite the self-confident assertions of the Trump Administration following last month’s Singapore summit, we appear to be headed once more toward dangerous disappointment, he said.
Once again, the U.S. sounds as if a major arms reduction achievement is just around the corner, while North Korea is making no such commitments.
Kim On Top
It is “unambiguously” clear that North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un came out of the Singapore summit on top, Pollack said.
“He got much of what he wanted and more without having to give up very much, if anything at all.”
Kim won three basic things at the summit, Pollack believes. First, he got “legitimation, validation -- sitting across the table with the President of the United States, (which) no leader of North Korea has ever done.”
This confirmation of Kim’s international stature “is being featured very, very extensively in North Korean propaganda.”
Along with validation of his personal stature came “tacit recognition that his nuclear weapons do exist and that the United States is not going to put unrelenting pressure against him to quickly get rid of them.”
He succeeded in “chipping away at the global coalition” that had imposed international economic sanctions against his regime. “He sought -- and got, in my view -- a green light from the U.S. for sanctions relief, a green light extended to China, South Korea and Russia.”
Pollack noted that the U.S. denies this. “It says, ‘No no no no no, the sanctions stay on the books’, but there are ‘workarounds’” that will allow North Korea to gain economic relief, he said.
Third, Kim undermined U.S. security commitments to South Korea, both near-term through the cancellation of U.S.-South Korea military exercises and longer-term by exploiting the apparent softness of U.S. support for its regional allies.
President Trump has “deep antipathies” to alliances and “thinks we are being taken to the cleaners regularly” by our allies, Pollack noted.
Kim has been able to benefit from this attitude as Japan, which depends on U.S. protection against North Korean nuclear threats, was left on the sidelines during talks that appeared vital to its future security.
To Pollack, the U.S. focus on “denuclearization” following the summit suggests how difficult it is for the two countries to understand each other.
“From the American point of view, we like to (ask), ‘What is it you are prepared to do to advance that (denuclearization) process?’
“The essential answer from North Korea has been the same for 30 years: ‘This really concerns the hostile policy of the United States. So if you walk away from that policy and take certain unspecified actions, then maybe we can have a conversation.’”
While Administration sources have defended President Trump’s confident, post-summit remarks about reduced nuclear danger, national news outlets including NBC and CNN have claimed last week that U.S. intelligence sources report signs that North Korea is taking clandestine steps to expand its nuclear weapons capabilities.
“There is absolutely unequivocal evidence that they are trying to deceive the U.S.,” NBC said it was told by an unidentified intelligence source.
As powerful as Kim is, he “is not exactly a model of health,” Pollack said.
“He fits the definition of morbid obesity. He is short of breath; he smokes; he drinks; he has probably put on 50 or 60 pounds since he became chairman” of North Korea’s ruling Communist Party.
Kim’s grandfather and father were iron rulers of North Korea. Kim has three children, the oldest being a seven or eight-year-old son.
“We are not really sure (of the son’s age) -- we have never seen him.” Nevertheless, it appears that “the dynasty is secure.”
Pollack summarized the negotiating steps he thinks the U.S. should take next.
“What is to be done?” he asked rhetorically. “If this is not to prove yet one more failure in this long process,” the U.S. must now be firm and specific about what it expects from North Korea.
Referring to a trip that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will reportedly soon take to North Korea in order to be able to generate timelines for actual arms reductions, the U.S. must insist that Pyongyang provide information about the numbers and locations of its weapon systems.
“We need to put on the table very, very extensive verification requirements” in order to know for certain whether the North Koreans are living up to agreements, he said.
To the best of his knowledge, no such information about Korean weapons programs has been made available, he said.
At a more general communication level, it is notable that “the fullest account by far of the discussions between President Trump and the North Koreans (at Singapore) came from the North Koreans.
“The United States has disclosed remarkably little” given that President Trump has boasted that the long-standing problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has now been resolved.
“If there is no credible basis (for claiming success) -- no ‘there’ there at the end of the day -- We (must) know it and acknowledge it as such,” he said.
Pollack considers the North Korean diplomats and negotiators skilled and professional, “highly disciplined, deeply structured, very well informed.”
They “know the negotiating record in a way that almost no Americans do. We need to listen and follow what they do say -- and don’t say.”
He believes that many years of diplomatic history suggest that “North Korea will do its best to confound us, giving us enough to keep the process ongoing” but not enough to resolve “this endless crisis.”