North Korea’s Baby Steps

Kim still hasn’t turned over a list of his nuclear facilities.

 

North Korean Leader Chairman Kim Jong Un and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after a two hour meeting in Pyongyang, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, Oct. 7.
North Korean Leader Chairman Kim Jong Un and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after a two hour meeting in Pyongyang, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, Oct. 7. PHOTO: STATE DEPARTMENT/ZUMA PRESS

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heralded “significant progress” after his weekend trip to North Korea, but it looks like that depends on how you define “significant.” The diplomatic atmospherics look good, and the bonhomie is nice, but there still isn’t much progress toward denuclearization.

Mr. Pompeo said the North had agreed in principle to open its Punggye-ri nuclear testing site to inspectors, which isn’t all that significant since the North says it has already destroyed the site. More important would be if the North allows inspectors to visit a missile-engine test site at Tongchang-ri, though that could also be dismantled by the time inspectors arrive.

What North Korea still hasn’t provided is a list with the location of all nuclear facilities, including research and development, uranium enrichment, warhead construction and weapons storage. The U.S. needs such a list to compare to its intelligence and decide if the Kim Jong Un regime is sincere. One-off inspections provide no such reassurance.

Mr. Pompeo said the two sides also made progress toward a second summit between Kim and President Trump, perhaps in Pyongyang. Mr. Trump wants another summit to show progress, but the North’s price for that public show is likely to be a “peace declaration” between North and South Korea. The risk is that this could undermine the case for keeping U.S. troops in South Korea. It would also be an excuse for the South to flood the North with investment that would further erode global sanctions before the North has denuclearized.

The best argument for Mr. Pompeo’s optimism is that all of this amounts to confidence-building that would make the North feel comfortable with nuclear disarmament. But the fact that it is being done on the North’s slow timetable, and perhaps with U.S. concessions up front, means the North has the diplomatic advantage. Kim could decide after months of haggling that he doesn’t need to give up his nuclear weapons because the U.S.-South Korea alliance and the sanctions regime are eroding.

That’s more likely if China decides to help Kim by refusing to enforce sanctions. Mr. Pompeo had a testy exchange Monday with his Chinese counterpart over tariffs and recent U.S. actions against China’s military.

Mr. Trump has supreme confidence in his personal diplomacy, and perhaps he believes he can win over Kim with another face-to-face meeting. Not to be spoilsports, but we’ll believe it when the North turns over its list of nuclear facilities and lets inspectors have the run of the sites to dismantle them.

Appeared in the October 9, 2018, print edition.

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