Over the weekend, separate reports citing U.S. officials seemed to confirm what so many experts have long feared — that despite the overtures and sunny proclamations made at the Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang probably has little interest in dismantling its nuclear program.
My colleagues Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick reported that evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence officials in the weeks since the June 12 summit led to the conclusion that North Korea “does not intend to fully surrender its nuclear stockpile, and instead is considering ways to conceal the number of weapons it has and secret production facilities.” Their reporting was corroborated by an earlier NBC story published Friday.
The North Koreans may have stopped missile and nuclear tests in recent months, but as one U.S. official briefed on the latest intelligence told NBC, “there’s no evidence that they are decreasing stockpiles, or that they have stopped their production. There is absolutely unequivocal evidence that they are trying to deceive the U.S.”
This line of thinking is far removed from Trump’s triumphant declarations. The president tweeted last month that there “was no longer a nuclear threat” posed by North Korea. While many of Trump’s detractors celebrated the cooling of tensions that surrounds the current phase of diplomacy, few shared his optimism about the prospects of “denuclearization.”
Trump tweeted “Just landed — a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!”
“Intelligence officials and many North Korea experts have generally taken a more cautious view, noting that leader Kim Jong Un’s vague commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula is a near-echo of earlier pledges from North Korean leaders over the past two decades, even as they accelerated efforts to build nuclear weapons in secret,” Nakashima and Warrick reported.
They added that, “North Korean officials are exploring ways to deceive Washington about the number of nuclear warheads, and missiles and the types and numbers of facilities they have, believing that the United States is not aware of the full range of their activities.” While American officials believe North Korea has amassed some 65 warheads, it seems North Korea will declare far fewer.
My colleagues also reported that the North Koreans have operated “a secret underground uranium enrichment site known as Kangson,” which was first reported in May by The Washington Post. It is believed to have twice the uranium enrichment capacity of the lone enrichment facility acknowledged by Pyongyang.
On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng reported that experts monitoring satellite imagery believe North Korea is also expanding a key missile-manufacturing plant, which could produce ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads.
“The observed activity appears inconsistent with a North Korean intent to abandon its nuclear weapons programs,” Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst and North Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, told NBC. “There seems little reason to continue expansion plans if the regime intended to dismantle them as would be required under a denuclearization agreement.”
Trump administration officials are also less bullish than the president was. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a Senate briefing last week that Trump only believed the North Korean threat had been “reduced,” not ended. According to some reports, Pompeo may make another visit to North Korea this week for more talks.
Appearing on a number of Sunday morning news shows, national security adviser John Bolton sought to dispel concerns that the White House is being hoodwinked. There is “nobody involved in this discussion with North Korea in the administration who is overburdened by naivete,” he told Fox News.
“We know exactly what the risks are — them using negotiations to drag out the length of time they have to continue their nuclear, chemical, biological weapons programs and ballistic missiles,” Bolton told CBS. “There’s not any starry-eyed feeling among the group doing this. We’re well aware of what the North Koreans have done in the past.”
North Korea’s past behavior offered a cautionary tale for the Trump administration ahead of the Singapore summit, with Pyongyang having reneged on earlier airy promises regarding denuclearization. Trump cast himself as the American president who, this time, wouldn’t get played. Even so, the White House extracted few genuine commitments from Pyongyang while it granted Kim a moment of legitimacy on the world stage and canceled planned military exercises with South Korea.
“North Korea has made no new commitments to denuclearization, and in fact has backed away from its previous commitments,” Abraham M. Denmark, Asia Program director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told a House committee in late June in testimony cited by my colleagues. “North Korea remains free to manufacture more nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction — even though it has unilaterally frozen testing of its nuclear weapons and certain ballistic missiles. There is no deadline for them to eliminate their illegal capabilities, or even freeze their continued production.”
And now, Trump’s much-touted campaign of “maximum pressure” on North Korea appears to have run its course. China, a key North Korean interlocutor, is now edging toward a trade war with the Trump administration. It’s hard to envision Beijing squeezing Pyongyang any further on Washington’s behalf.
“A strategy of sanctions is like a cat-and-mouse game,” wrote Cho Yi-Jun, Washington correspondent for South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo. “The subject constantly looks for ways to avoid them, while the enforcing side keeps on looking for possible weaknesses. Without additional pressure, existing sanctions are useless.”
This, too, was predictable. “Having apparently helped get North Korea to the table, it is unlikely that China will ever again agree to a maximum pressure campaign,” arms control experts Vipin Narang and Ankit Panda noted on the eve of the Singapore summit. Tightening sanctions would only destabilize North Korea, and China fears a desperate and broken North Korea on its border more than it fears a nuclear North Korea. Even if sanctions by the United States and the United Nations Security Council remain in place, without additional Chinese implementation, North Korea will find itself enjoying considerable breathing space.”
In an interview with Fox Business on Sunday, Trump himself revealed a hint of skepticism: “I made a deal with him, I shook hands with him, I really believe he means it,” Trump said, referring to his encounter with Kim. “Now, is it possible? Have I been in deals, have you been in things where people didn’t work out? It’s possible.”
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.