Suspension of nuclear and ICBM testing would represent significant restrictions on North Korea’s nuclear activities. But these are proposals to shape the arsenal rather than eliminate it—meaning that North Korea still has yet to say anything publicly about its intent to denuclearize. While Kim did say that Pyongyang supported the vision of “global disarmament,” this is a common trope in North Korean propaganda and suggests that North Korea will soon call for tit-for-tat arms control with the United States.
All this implies that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has not brought Kim to heel. Instead, Kim essentially made a declaration of his regime’s nuclear policy—the act of a confident nuclear power.
In truth, Kim’s announcement represents an opening bid that would allow him to keep his nuclear and missile forces intact. Despite his claims, North Korea has not, by most military and technical standards, created an advanced, survivable, reliable arsenal. Suspending testing would effectively prevent the deployment of new, more efficient, or more compact warhead designs.
But Kim’s proposed cap is only partial. He has said nothing about North Korea’s production of fissile material, which continues today at a frightening pace: The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency has found that North Korea may be producing enough material for 12 nuclear weapons each year. In his speech, Kim made no mention of submarine-launched missiles, or of short- or medium-range missiles fired from land, which could threaten U.S. allies in the region. Furthermore, North Korea may circumvent its own limits simply by re-classifying long-range missile tests as space launches, a trick it pulled to scuttle the most recent agreement back in 2012. There are signs of ongoing work on a satellite launcher based on its most advanced ICBM, the Hwasong-15. In short, even if North Korea adheres to the commitments it just set out, it could still produce and test more warheads and missiles.
Furthermore, North Korea may not adhere to these commitments—it’s easy to break a self-enforced, unverified moratorium as soon as that moratorium becomes inconvenient. Pyongyang could reverse any of its commitments at a moment’s notice, just as it did in 2006 when it broke a 1999 moratorium on missile launches.
The key for Trump in his upcoming meeting with Kim, then, will be to convert these commitments from a partial cap to a hard cap. To do so, American negotiators will have to to codify, clarify, and verify Kim’s proposed limits during the summit. This means imposing limits on all missile tests, including satellite-launch vehicles and fixed-engine tests. Putting a hard cap on the program would make Americans safer if negotiations on a comprehensive agreement drag on into the summer and fall.
Aside from Kim’s commitments to limit testing and launches, his pledge to refrain from proliferating nuclear technology is perhaps the most intriguing. If this commitment could be verified, it would deflate much of the case for military action and assuage one major U.S. concern about North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.