North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hasn’t given up a single nuclear weapon, but that didn’t stop President Donald Trump from reassuring Americans on Twitter that they should “sleep well” because the nuclear threat from Pyongyang is over.
That public strategy is leading some analysts to believe Trump might be willing to live with a nuclear armed North Korea just as the U.S. has learned to live with other nuclear nations, like Pakistan and India.
Despite tough U.S. talk before the summit about “complete” and “verifiable” denuclearization, the vaguely worded 1 1/2-page document Trump and Kim signed doesn’t include that language and essentially represents “tacit approval” of North Korea’s nuclear program, said Jeffery Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California.
“I don’t think it would be the end of the world, because it’s the world we already live in,” he said. “My worry is that the president keeps promising that Kim will give up his weapons. If he suddenly wakes up one day and realizes what’s really going on, he could just explode, and then we’re in real trouble.”
Even the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based policy research group normally supportive of Trump’s foreign policy, signaled its reservations.
“It is difficult to evaluate whether Trump and Kim’s joint statement is a small step toward” verifiable denuclearization or is, instead, “a sign that the Trump administration will accept other outcomes.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo angrily dismissed those concerns, saying that the language used in the agreement encompassed U.S. demands, even though they weren’t spelled out, and predicting that significant progress on denuclearization will be made by 2021.
“I suppose we could argue semantics, but let me assure you it’s in the document,” Pompeo told reporters Wednesday in Seoul.
The mercurial Trump could also quickly shift his approach if he determines sufficient progress isn’t being made. Less than a year before their historic summit, Trump was threatening “fire and fury” on North Korea and publicly deriding Kim as “Little Rocket Man.”
At their historic summit, Kim made few concessions beyond agreeing to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — a term his regime and the U.S. can’t agree on a definition for. The agreement provided no timetable for giving up as many as 60 nuclear bombs and a range of missiles, including some that he says can strike the American homeland.
Pompeo said he’ll be hammering out details of the accord in the coming weeks with North Korean counterparts. But Pyongyang appears to be betting on the model of “build it first” and then letting a long process of fruitless talks drag on later. The country has already staved off a quarter-century of efforts to get it to halt nuclear development, and the agreement it signed in Singapore is weaker than previous commitments, which were quickly breached.
Of the world’s eight known nuclear powers beyond North Korea, three — India, Pakistan and Israel — emerged outside a formal international arms control framework. India, in particular, faced years of U.S. sanctions for its nuclear program before Washington accepted that continued opposition was useless and that it needed to do more to court the world’s biggest democracy. Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons received tacit support from Washington, which saw it as providing a guarantee of safety in a volatile region.
In the joint statement, North Korea only agreed to “work toward’’ denuclearization. Those two words — and the lack of any mention of “complete, verifiable, irreversible’’ disarmament — could signal to world leaders that Kim will not be forced to abandon his nuclear program, said Adam Mount, a senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
“Pyongyang will read this as a concession that its nuclear and missile advancements purchased weaker language on denuclearization,’’ Mount said. “North Korea’s commitment ‘to work toward’ disarmament is analogous to the language that binds the five accepted nuclear weapons states. Pyongyang will use this language to portray itself as a nuclear power, entitled to neglect its disarmament commitments just like the other nuclear powers.’’
A key Trump ally, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, appeared to acknowledge the success of North Korea’s model in an interview after the summit concluded.
Without his nuclear arsenal, Kim wouldn’t have been even able to sit down and negotiate with Trump, according to Cotton, a member of the armed service committee who backed the president’s efforts in Singapore.
“Countries like Iran and Cuba and other two-bit rogue regimes don’t have nuclear weapons, yet,” Cotton told Hugh Hewitt. “They can’t threaten the United States in that way.”
Iran urged North Korea to be vigilant while it weighs U.S. offers, citing Trump’s decision last month to quit a landmark nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions. Tehran’s government is still weighing whether it will stick by the accord or leave and potentially renounce the nuclear non-proliferation treaty — the accord North Korea ditched in 2003 before detonating its first bomb three years later.
North Korea’s neighbors have grown accustomed to living with a nuclear North Korea. Officials in China and Russia have called for sanctions relief to be considered, while South Korea has been aggressively pursuing a rapprochement with North Korea.
‘Not a Good Message’
Trump, who said this week that North Korea’s nuclear program is “very substantial,’’ has also softened his rhetoric — suspending military exercises and scaling back his demands for what North Korea must do to receive relief from sanctions. During a press conference following Tuesday’s summit, Trump lamented about how long it might take to achieve complete denuclearization.
“You’re talking about a very complex subject. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, gee. Let’s get rid of the nukes’’’ Trump said Tuesday. “It takes a period of time.’’
If Kim’s nuclear program becomes globally accepted as a menace to maintain rather than eliminate, the precedent could be dangerous for non-proliferation, said Lewis.
“I’m not saying it’s a good thing to accept North Korea this way,’’ he said. “If we do that we set a terrible example for non-proliferation. Saddam gave up his nuclear program and died; Qaddafi gave up his program and died; Kim didn’t give up, built a bunch of nuclear weapons and not only stays alive but gets rewarded. That is not a good message to be sending out.’’