The bellicose rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea has certainly cooled, with no more threats of nuclear annihilation or personal insults. But months after Donald Trump shared an historic handshake with Kim Jong Un in June, a nuclear deal remains elusive. The U.S. president cites the more than year-long break in North Korean missile tests as a diplomatic success and says he’s in “no hurry” to get more done, even as North Korea’s nuclear program quietly advances. North Korea has accused the U.S. of “gunboat diplomacy” by making demands without offering something in return. As the two leaders prepare for a second summit Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam, there’s still the difficult issue of putting meat on the bare-bones language in the declaration the two leaders signed at their first meeting.
1. What did the agreement call for?
Four things: To normalize ties between the U.S. and North Korea, formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, repatriate U.S. war remains and -- crucially -- “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But “work toward” is undefined. It’s also unclear whether the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea is included. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo says that Kim accepted the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.” North Korea points out the agreement referred to the entire peninsula and insists U.S. weapons must go at the same time, or it would be left vulnerable to attack.
2. What does ‘denuclearization’ entail?
To start, the U.S. wants North Korea to provide an inventory of weapons, facilities and fissile material it has produced. Kim’s regime calls that akin to asking for a “target list.” Further steps would include inspections, closing facilities and destroying weapons, and even surrendering nuclear material, according to proliferation experts. Past talks have faltered on the question of inspections and verification.
3. What does North Korea want?
Kim wants “corresponding measures,” or immediate rewards, for any steps his regime makes. In a televised New Year’s address, Kim threatened to take a “new path” if Washington didn’t relax crippling economic sanctions. He signaled that any deal might require weakening the U.S.-South Korean alliance, urging Seoul not to resume military exercises with the American side. And he made clear that he believed the denuclearization pledge includes “strategic assets” such as America’s nuclear-capable planes and warships. But his language was less bellicose than past years, possibly reflecting his limited options.
4. So what’s happened since Singapore?
Small steps. In July, North Korea released some 55 sets of remains of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War, but negotiations slowed over the remains of thousands of others. While Kim followed through on pledges to refrain from nuclear weapons tests and dismantle testing facilities, those were moves he had committed to before meeting Trump, having declared the testing phase complete. On the U.S. side, Trump suspended or scaled back military drills with South Korea, calling them expensive “war games.” In doing so, he overruled then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who argued they were needed to ensure troop readiness. But the Trump administration also imposed extra sanctions on North Koreans, as it seeks to keep the pressure on.
5. Are they talking?
Not much at the highest levels until a Jan. 18 White House meeting between Trump and Kim Yong Chol, one of the North Korean leader’s top aides, where they agreed to a second summit at the end of February, time and place to be determined. That was followed by weekend talks outside Stockholm -- also notable since North Korean officials had been snubbing Trump’s special envoy, Stephen Biegun, for months. In Sweden, Biegun reportedly asked his North Korean interlocutor, Choe Son Hui, for a freeze on nuclear fuel and weapons production. As Trump was announcing the date for the second summit, Biegun was in Pyongyang meeting his North Korean counterpart to prepare for it. Relations between North and South Korea have improved somewhat, with a deal in September for removing landmines and some guard posts from the border zone. The U.S.-China trade war complicates cooperation between Washington and Beijing, Kim’s main ally. But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said China backs further meetings between Trump and Kim.
6. Is North Korea still dangerous?
Trump declared after the summit that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.” The prospect of war seems to have receded and there has been an unprecedented flurry of low-level diplomatic contacts and correspondence. But no one has produced a timetable for Kim to give up his weapons. North Korea has continued to strengthen and expand its nuclear capabilities, according to satellite-imagery analysis and leaked American intelligence. Pompeo has conceded before the U.S. Senate that Kim’s regime continues to produce fissile material. In June, he said the bulk of denuclearization could be completed by the end of Trump’s first term in 2020. Now he -- and Trump -- say they won’t be forced into “artificial time frames.”
7. Why isn’t the Korean War officially over?
Because the parties involved in talks to end the war -- China, North Korea and the U.S.-led UN Command -- never were able to agree on a peace treaty. What was signed in 1953 was only an armistice, or truce. However, signing a treaty now without a disarmament deal carries risks for the U.S., because it could legitimize Kim’s control over half of the peninsula and undermine the rationale for stationing 28,000 or so American troops in South Korea. Each side uses the continued threat of attack to justify its own military activities. Trump has so far refused to accept a symbolic peace declaration, prompting the North Koreans to accuse the U.S. of backtracking on its commitments.
--With assistance from David Tweed.
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