Opinion | North Korean Nuclear Shell Game

Opinion | North Korean Nuclear Shell Game


President Trump, who styles himself a master deal maker and reader of people, claimed to have put an end to the North Korean nuclear threat with his meeting in June with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. “We fell in love,” he swooned in September after an exchange of follow-up letters with Mr. Kim. Mr. Trump’s closest advisers remained dry-eyed, and the evidence is mounting that they had reason.

On Monday the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a respected Washington think tank, published a study by its “Beyond Parallel” program showing that even as North Korea was touting some half steps to dismantle a missile launching site, it was operating and improving at least 13, and possibly as many as 20, bases housing mobile ballistic missile launchers. One mountain base on which the study focused, just 84 miles from Seoul, was “active and being reasonably well maintained by North Korean standards.”

None of that was a surprise to American intelligence agencies, which have been reporting a continuing buildup of North Korea’s missile stockpile. Nor should it have surprised Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, until recently the director of the C.I.A., who acknowledged at a Senate hearing in July that North Koreans “continue to produce fissile material.”

For that matter, North Korea’s shell game is not even a violation of the agreement Mr. Trump signed with Mr. Kim, which proclaimed their meeting “an epochal event of great significance” but referred only to working toward a vague “denuclearization.” The skeletal agreement had no deadlines, no verification regime, no penalties for noncompliance.

The trouble is that Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim had totally opposite views of what the joint statement was supposed to mean. Mr. Trump apparently believed that American sanctions, plus his threats (“fire and fury”) and his irresistible persona, had driven Mr. Kim to abandon his nuclear aspirations. Mr. Kim apparently believed that approaching the capacity to strike the United States had compelled Mr. Trump to agree to lift sanctions in exchange for a gradual stand-down of the North’s program.

Pyongyang now seems to have understood its error. Mr. Kim’s envoy skipped a scheduled meeting with Mr. Pompeo last week, and Mr. Trump’s special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, has yet to meet a North Korean official more than two months since his appointment. Recent statements from North Korea speak of resuming work on its nuclear program unless sanctions are lifted. The Trump administration continues to demand complete denuclearization before any sanctions are lifted. In other words, virtually nothing has changed.

And Mr. Trump? He appears still happily convinced that love had conquered all. “We fully know about the sites being discussed, nothing new — and nothing happening out of the normal,” he said on Twitter on Tuesday. “Just more Fake News. I will be the first to let you know if things go bad!”

How bad they have to go before Mr. Trump abandons his delusions of an epochal achievement is anybody’s guess. But once he does, it is easy to imagine him unleashing even more of the apocalyptic language that raised tensions in 2017. The difference is that this time he will probably not have the support of China, Russia or South Korea, which took the June summit meeting as a signal to improve relations with North Korea and are not likely to turn back.

The challenge for Mr. Pompeo and other sober hands in the administration is to prevent a slide back to fire and fury and to put the denuclearization talks on a more practical and realistic footing than love, which, as Erin Morgenstern noted in her novel “The Night Circus,” is “rarely a solid foundation for decisions to be made upon, in any game.” In the disarmament game, it can be deadly.

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