KCNA / Reuters

The optimism generated by President Trump’s meeting last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is giving way to the reality of just how difficult it will be to persuade North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons. In fact, it’s difficult even to understand what Kim and Trump actually agreed to.  

Recent reports said U.S. intelligence agencies suspect that North Korea has, according to NBC News, “increased its production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites;” has also, 38 North adds, made “improvements to the infrastructure at … Yongbyon,” the plutonium-production reactor; and, The Washington Post reports, is “considering ways to conceal the number of weapons it has and secret production facilities.” Separately, The Wall Street Journal reported that North Korea was expanding a facility to build solid-fuel ballistic missiles, even as Kim was meeting with his South Korean counterpart in April and preparing for his meeting with Trump in June.

These assessments would seem to contradict Trump’s initial public pronouncements about his meeting with Kim. Soon afterward, Trump said the nuclear threat “will be gone.” He then tweeted: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” But the president conceded Sunday on Fox News that “it’s possible” that a deal won’t work out.

Yet it’s unclear at this point whether any of North Korea’s reported actions are a violation of whatever Kim and Trump decided on at their meeting. Trump and Kim first met one-on-one, with their translators, and then met with their top aides. No one else really knows what denuclearization commitments were made in that room, beyond the public joint statement in which North Korea “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” If it was further specified in conversation how and when exactly this “work” would take place, and what exactly it would mean to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in contrast to just the North giving up its nukes, that is not currently public. It’s possible that the joint communique the two sides signed meant different things to each side.

Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, dismissed as “insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous” questions about how the U.S. planned to verify that North Korea was living up to its end of the deal. John Bolton, the president’s national-security adviser, told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday that the U.S. would soon be talking to North Korea “about, really, how to dismantle all of their [weapons of mass destruction] and ballistic-missile programs in a year.” Reports of the expansion of those programs could suggest North Korea is maneuvering for more negotiating leverage when working toward any agreement with the U.S. Or perhaps they are a warning shot across Kim’s bow, to indicate that U.S. intelligence knows what he is doing, whether or not he allows outside verification of his compliance.

Bolton is a longtime skeptic of North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization—a perspective U.S. intelligence agencies seem to share. When asked Sunday about the intelligence estimates of North Korea’s actions, he maintained that the administration was realistic about the North’s behavior. “We know exactly what the risks are, of them using negotiations to drag out the length of time they have to continue their nuclear, chemical, biological weapons programs, ballistic missiles,” he said. “The president would like to see these discussions move promptly to get a resolution.”

Intelligence officials cited by the Post went further, assessing 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.” This would fit a historical pattern, since past attempts at talking to North Korea over its nuclear program—in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama eras—all ultimately failed. One reason has been that the U.S. and North Korea understand “denuclearization” differently. For the U.S., the word means that North Korea gets rid of its nuclear weapons. But for North Korea, Evans Revere, a former top U.S. official for East Asia, wrote for the Brookings Institution, the word means something else:

In recent years, senior North Korean officials have told U.S. officials and participants in non-governmental dialogues exactly what this phrase means. They have said it means the elimination of the “threat” posed by the U.S.-South Korea alliance, by U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, and by the U.S. nuclear umbrella that defends South Korea and Japan. They have told us that, in return for U.S. steps to eliminate these “threats” the DPRK would “consider” denuclearization in 10-20 years’ time if Pyongyang feels “secure.”

This definition has been unacceptable to past U.S. administrations, and presumably it is unacceptable to the Trump administration, as well—though in deference to North Korea’s perceptions of the U.S. “threat,” Trump did suspend next month’s military drills with South Korea, an exercise he described as “very provocative” and “tremendously expensive.”

Even if the the two sides did agree on a common definition of denuclearization, it is not clear they share an assessment of what such a process would look like: The U.S. wants Pyongyang to stop making nuclear weapons and get rid of the nuclear weapons it already possesses. Although Pyongyang might be persuaded to take the former step, it is highly unlikely that it will give up those weapons it already has, given that it says it views possessing those weapons as a security guarantee.

Despite the new reports about the North’s activities, the Trump administration is continuing the policy of dialogue with Kim’s regime. On Sunday, U.S. officials met with their North Korean counterparts in Panmunjom, the border village that lies in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. The meeting was the first between the two sides since last month’s summit between the two leaders. Additionally, Axios reported, the U.S. is considering a second Trump-Kim meeting at the United Nations in New York in September. If the North has indeed increased its production of nuclear fuel, it will have plenty more by then.

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