And it turned out even Pompeo’s modest assessment of the trip’s achievements—which yielded neither public steps toward denuclearization nor remains transfers, but what Pompeo called “productive conversations” on “complicated issues”—may have been too much. No sooner had he left the country than the North was characterizing those same talks as “regrettable” in light of America’s “gangsterlike” demand for the North’s unilateral denuclearization.
It was a departure from the recent tone of near-amity between the North and the U.S., and certainly matched neither Pompeo’s characterization of his own talks nor Trump’s tweeted optimism about ongoing “good conversations” with the North Koreans ahead of Pompeo’s trip. Yet it was also a return to form for the North Koreans, who briefly got the summit cancelled through what Trump called “tremendous anger and open hostility,” including personal attacks on Trump officials like National-Security Adviser John Bolton. And the disconnect was also characteristic of the Trump administration’s negotiations with North Korea as a whole—to wit, since the summit and before, the sides seem to be having two separate conversations.
The most important example of this concerns the very term “denuclearization.” Trump has characterized getting North Korea to sign on to working toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as a concrete achievement akin to Kim promising to give up nukes. But though Trump and Kim signed the same statement, they meant something entirely different. As both Uri Friedman and Joel Wit have detailed in these pages, the North’s ambition for “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” was not a concession but the reiteration of a long-standing position. And as Kim Yong Chol’s remarks demonstrate, it would be a mistake for Trump to read this as a promise to unilaterally disarm.
What the North Koreans mean by “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as Friedman explained, is “proof of denuclearization in South Korea [from which the U.S. withdrew tactical nuclear weapons under George H.W. Bush] … [and] no more deployment of American nuclear-capable vessels and aircrafts during training exercises with South Korean forces.” The South may currently be nuclear-free, but the North Koreans don’t believe that, and as Friedman notes, the U.S. “still has multiple ways to launch a nuclear attack against North Korea, and the North Koreans know it.” The North Koreans may also consider the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, and an end to the U.S.-South Korean alliance, to be encompassed in this notion of “denuclearization.”
In a more typical diplomatic process, the gap-closing on issues such as this would have been undertaken by lower-level officials prior to a summit. Indeed this is a key reason no U.S.-North Korea summit had taken place before Trump—previous administrations had assessed that the sides remained too far apart on the core issues to warrant the risk of such a high-profile failure. If Trump’s gamble was that the unprecedented nature of the summit itself was enough to shock the North Korean system into real movement, there’s no public indication yet that it worked.