Realistic Timeline for Denuclearization Not Yet Possible
During an interview on Face the Nation this past weekend, National Security Advisor John Bolton said: “With North Korean cooperation with full disclosure of all of their chemical and biological nuclear programs ballistic missile sites…we would be able to dismantle the overwhelming bulk of their programs within a year.” This seems very unrealistic and contradicts recent statements by Trump administration officials that major steps on denuclearization could be realized by the end of Trump’s first term in office. Secretary Pompeo’s statement last week that he is “not going to put a timeline on it,” is perhaps the most realistic, and reflects the lack of substantive conversation on the process for verifiable denuclearization during and since the Singapore summit.
North Korean Nuclear Development Continues
It was no surprise to see the reports this past weekend by The Wall Street Journal and 38North that North Korea had advanced construction at a missile production facility for medium-range solid fuel missiles in May and June. A Diplomat article cited reports from the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center that North Korea has continued production of launch vehicles and support equipment for its medium-range missiles. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence officials said they believe Kim is taking steps to conceal its nuclear facilities and capabilities and has more than one secret nuclear development site. These developments contradict North Korean commitments to denuclearize. They underscore concerns that President Trump declared victory in Singapore for domestic political purposes without securing significant concessions or verifiable commitments from the North. Securing a North Korean commitment to stop production, development, or research will require prolonged additional negotiations, and it is unclear what leverage the United States still holds with the Singapore summit in the past.
Don’t Expect Beijing’s Full Cooperation in Applying Economic Pressure on North Korea
Beyond building his nuclear and missile inventory, Kim is also using momentum from Panmunjom and Singapore to lessen economic pressure. Some reports indicate that Beijing may be willing to relax economic pressure on the North outside of the UN framework in order to encourage Kim to adopt economic reforms similar to those China has undertaken. Indeed, during Kim’s latest meeting with Xi, Kim is reported to have asked China to help lift economic sanctions. China also continues to try to promote its model of reform and opening through site visits during Kim’s multiple recent trips to China. In addition, on July 1, Kim traveled to the Hwanggumpyong Exclusive Industrial Zone co-developed with China, another reminder of the economic potential between the two countries.
Pompeo’s Trip: an Inflection Point
Secretary Pompeo will travel to North Korea this week, and the outcomes of his discussions will be the best indications yet of whether actual progress towards denuclearization is possible. There is much to be discussed, but for the visit to be a success, he should leave Pyongyang with specific details on the North Korean nuclear inventory, concrete next steps and a timeline which shows Kim is earnest in denuclearizing, and an agreement on how verification of the aforementioned objectives will happen. Reports that Pompeo has solicited a series of proposals on how denuclearization might occur are positive indications that he hopes to achieve the above and leave Pyongyang having made real progress. However, the same concerns voiced ahead of Trump’s meeting in Singapore remain, and it would be a major disappointment if he secures nothing further than the vague language to “work towards” denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. If now is to really be any different from before, real specifics are needed.