President Trump has returned from a meeting with Kim Jong Un that briefly included an unprecedented venture on to North Korean soil for a sitting U.S. president.
And what do we have to show for that historic concession and propaganda win for Kim? Not any official concession from the North Koreans. What we do have, though, is a potential moving of the goal posts — away from a fully denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
As Trump returned, the New York Times reported that his administration is entertaining the idea of a deal with North Korea that includes a “freeze” in its nuclear program, rather than the complete and total denuclearization the administration has demanded. The reported deal feels a whole lot like a trial balloon for a diluted deal.
National security adviser John Bolton, it bears emphasizing, called the report into question Monday morning. He tweeted that, “Neither the [National Security Council] staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by NK,’” Bolton said.
But note a couple things. First, Bolton isn’t quite saying that such a proposal isn’t on the table; he’s merely saying he and the NSC haven’t talked about it. Bolton also was a curious omission from the delegation that traveled to North Korea, and if there’s anything we know about this administration, it’s that the left hand isn’t always talking to the right. Bolton even seems to couch his tweet by allowing for the possibility that this is coming from someone in the administration. “This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President,” Bolton wrote.
But if this is something of a walkback of the administration’s North Korea demands, it would hardly be surprising. From the start, its definition of “denuclearization” has been somewhat hazy, and there have been several junctures where it suggested a partial deal was possible.
Back in May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to suggest the ultimate goal was to protect the United States from any potential nuclear attack. And while he said North Korea had to “get rid of your [chemical weapons] program and missiles that threaten the world,” he didn’t say specifically that it had to get rid of existing nuclear weapons.
By February, when Trump was in Vietnam for a second summit with Kim, Pompeo again offered a curious comment, saying, “We won’t release that [sanctions] pressure until such time as we’re confident that we’ve substantially reduced that risk.” When CNN’s Jake Tapper noted that a “substantially reduced” risk didn’t sound like total denuclearization, Pompeo insisted the demands hadn’t changed.
And after the visit, Trump declared that a deal was “ready to be signed” before he opted against it — except that the deal wasn’t even close to full denuclearization. It involved closing one big nuclear facility, Yongbyon, in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump said North Korea had requested full sanctions relief, while the North Koreans said they only asked for partial. Either way, though, the fact that this deal was even being entertained suggests a willingness to reach a “first step” type of deal — which is pretty much what the Times’s report is about.
The wisdom of such a partial deal is in the eye of the beholder. Suffice it so say that the United States has tried these kinds of freezes before — under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — and North Korea didn’t follow through. Maybe this deal would be different, but skepticism is warranted. And that’s part of the reason the administration made such an absolute list of demands to start out.
It’s also worth noting that a partial deal allowing North Korea to remain a nuclear power would bear some resemblance to the Iran deal that Trump argued was so disastrous and that he pulled out of. As it happens, even as the new report came out, a United Nations watchdog reported that Iran has now breached the prescribed limit on its nuclear stockpile.
Trump has said repeatedly that allowing Iran to enrich a certain amount of uranium as part of that deal was unacceptable, even as it doesn’t yet have a nuclear weapon. Given that history, how would he possibly justify a deal allowing North Korea to keep nuclear weapons that it already has?
It sounds like we may find out at some point.