Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un collapsed not because the parties couldn’t agree on how North Korea would get rid of its nuclear weapons altogether, but over something far more modest: the price for preventing Pyongyang’s arsenal from becoming even deadlier.
Administration officials insisted that the aim in Vietnam this week was “the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” and that’s true in the long term. But for the time being, they actually seem to be negotiating the conditions under which the United States can live with a nuclear-armed North Korea. It’s quite a comedown for Trump, who once boasted that his personal diplomatic touch had prompted Kim to start “de-nuking the whole place.”
The North Koreans were prepared to make some concessions; they just wanted a lot in return. At the summit, as officials from both countries have acknowledged, the North Koreans offered to verifiably dismantle part of their Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for lifting the five most recent rounds of United Nations Security Council sanctions.
Yongbyon has been the centerpiece of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program since the 1990s and produces various forms of fuel for nuclear bombs. Coupled with Kim’s suspension of nuclear and missile tests last spring, shutting down the facility would have curbed Pyongyang’s progress in developing the sophisticated nuclear weapons that pose the greatest danger to the United States.