These bases — and the activity at them — seem to show that North Korea continues to prepare for a potential nuclear war despite the historic summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June. There have also been reports that North Korea is still producing missiles and nuclear material. All of this, along with Pyongyang’s reputation for cheating in prior agreements, has created a minor panic over whether Kim deliberately deceived the United States about his willingness to dismantle his nuclear program.
Given the high stakes of the negotiations, it’s worth examining the allegations of North Korean deception: What has Kim actually said he would do with his nuclear weapons program? And why are claims of North Korean deception so worrying?
On the first question, the answer is a lot.
Kim kicked off 2018 with a New Year’s Day speech, one that offered the first hint that Kim was open to negotiations after a year of weapons testing and increasingly hostile rhetoric from both Pyongyang and Washington. But there was another part of the speech that seems just as important in hindsight. Kim hailed the supposed completion of its nuclear weapons development and said it was time for a new goal.
“This year, we should focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment,” Kim said. “These weapons will be used only if our security is threatened.”
“Kim himself proclaimed that they no longer need to test parts anymore and will just mass-produce weapons,” Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said to Today’s WorldView. North Korea has never publicly repudiated these comments, and the United States has never clearly stated that Kim rejected them when he met with Trump in Singapore.
On Monday, in response to the Center for Strategic and International Studies report, Today’s WorldView spoke to a number of experts to ask whether the continued work at North Korean missile sites, as well as other reports that North Korean is expanding its missile arsenal, would violate the agreement reached between Kim and Trump in Singapore.
All of them agreed — often quite emphatically — that it did not. “Kim hasn’t broken any promises,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “Instead, he’s making good on one of them — to mass-produce nuclear weapons.”
As such, it’s not surprising that North Korea would still be manning secret missile bases, or even producing new missiles or nuclear weapons. “Even though they’re violating all U.N. Security Council resolutions, North Korea didn’t break any promises with Trump because there’s no nuclear deal in place yet with Washington — there’s nothing that prevents them from expanding their nuclear arsenal,” Duyeon Kim said.
“Like any other nuclear weapon-possessing state, North Korea is refining the facilities and procedures associated with operating nuclear forces,” Ankit Panda observed in an analysis for NK News this week.
So if North Korea is doing what it said it would be doing, why are allegations of North Korean deception so worrying? Because they reveal how differently the United States and North Korea perceive what happened in Singapore, a gap that could sink any diplomatic progress.
Trump himself has consistently portrayed North Korean denuclearization as a fait accompli. But North Korea, many analysts say, sees getting rid of its nuclear weapons as the last in a long series of peace-building measures that need to be taken — if it even happens at all.
“Trump seems not to understand that he did not negotiate a ‘deal’ in Singapore,” Frank Jannuzi, the president of the Mansfield Foundation and an Asia expert, wrote on Twitter. “He negotiated only an ‘intent to negotiate.’ The hard work has yet to commence.”
It has not. After the bonhomie between Trump and Kim faded, working-level meetings between the United States and North Korea foundered. North Korea has pushed for concessions such as a formal end to the Korean War and sanctions relief, and it has even threatened to restart testing.
Accusations of dishonesty and a subsequent air of distrust have derailed many previous attempts to find common ground between Washington and Pyongyang. Certainly, North Korea’s reputation for obtuseness and disregard for the truth is well-earned. But so far, North Korea has kept to the vague requirements agreed to in Singapore.
And if there’s someone confused about what that summit meant, it doesn’t appear to be Kim.