Why there has been no progress in nuclear talks with North Korea

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“THERE IS NO longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” President Donald Trump tweeted in June. Mr Trump had just returned from a meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator. During the meeting, he claimed, Mr Kim had agreed to give up his nuclear programme in return for American security guarantees and, eventually, relief from sanctions. But more than five months later, the nuclear threat is alive and well. Intelligence reports suggest that Mr Kim is expanding his programme rather than rolling it back. On November 16th North Korea reported that the army had successfully tested an unspecified “ultramodern tactical weapon”, the first public reference to a recent weapons test since November 2017. So why have things hit a snag?

On the face of it, the process turns on differing interpretations of what Mr Kim actually pledged to do. In the text signed in June, the two countries agree to “establish new US-DPRK relations” and “build a lasting and stable peace regime” while North Korea “commits to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”. America has since insisted that any concessions it offers must be preceded by clear Korean moves towards denuclearisation, such as handing over a complete list of nuclear facilities and allowing inspections of sites that have allegedly been dismantled. But apart from a freeze on nuclear tests (which actually preceded the Singapore summit), North Korea has only offered symbolic gestures, like publicly blowing up a test site it no longer needed. Before taking more concrete steps, it is demanding that America reciprocate, for instance by lifting some sanctions. Follow-up talks have not succeeded in bridging the gap. Earlier this month, a meeting between Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, and Kim Yong Chol, the North’s chief negotiator, was cancelled by the North at the last minute. 

Mr Kim may be prepared to give up his nuclear weapons, and may simply want more tangible guarantees before he starts the process. But it is more likely that he wants to hang on to the nukes, which the regime has pursued for decades to ensure its survival, and is using the current round of negotiations to try to extract concessions from America. After all, the North has a history of making other countries pay for promises on which it then reneges. Mr Trump’s relentless overselling of the deal reached in Singapore, which contains no details of how the denuclearisation is meant to come about, has encouraged such behaviour. Mr Kim is exploiting the vagueness of his own promises to stall the process, all the while accusing America of bad faith.

For now, the process remains in a rut. No serious arms-control agreement is possible unless Mr Kim hands over a list of his nuclear facilities, but there is no sign that he will do this. Indeed, the North’s state media has recently ramped up its rhetoric again, threatening to return to nuclear testing unless America makes the concessions that Mr Kim claims it promised. In response, America has vowed to keep up sanctions and pressure on the regime. But it has also made emollient noises. On November 15th Mike Pence, the vice-president, said that a second meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim may go ahead without North Korea having to show the much-discussed nuclear-facilities list. America’s adoption of the North’s view of denuclearisation may ensure that talks continue, diffusing the risk of re-escalation. But it is unlikely to bring an end to the North’s nuclear programme.

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