Kim and Trump Back at Square 1: If U.S. Keeps Sanctions, North Will Keep Nuclear Program

Nearly two years into his presidency and more than six months after his historic summit meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, President Trump finds himself essentially back where he was at the beginning in achieving the ambitious goal of getting Mr. Kim to relinquish his nuclear arsenal.

That was the essential message of Mr. Kim’s annual New Year’s televised speech, where he reiterated that international sanctions must be lifted before North Korea will give up a single weapon, dismantle a single missile site or stop producing nuclear material.

The list of recent North Korean demands was a clear indicator of how the summit meeting in Singapore last June altered the optics of the relationship more than the reality. Those demands were very familiar from past confrontations: that

  1. all joint military training between the United States and South Korea be stopped, that
  2. American nuclear and military capability within easy reach of the North be withdrawn, and that
  3. a peace treaty ending the Korean War be completed.

“It’s fair to say that not much has changed, although we now have more clarity regarding North Korea’s bottom line,’’ Evans J.R. Revere, a veteran American diplomat and former president of the Korea Society, wrote in an email.

Pyongyang refused to accept the United States’ definition of ‘denuclearization’ in Singapore,’’ he wrote.

To the United States, that means

  • the North gives up its entire nuclear arsenal;

in the North’s view, it includes

  • a reciprocal pullback of any American ability to threaten it with nuclear weapons.

The two competing visions of denuclearization have not changed since then.”

Mr. Trump and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, who is supposed to turn Mr. Trump’s enthusiasms into diplomatic achievements, dispute such conclusions. They note that the tone of one of the world’s fiercest armed standoffs has improved. It has, and both leaders say they want to meet again.

In a tweet on Tuesday night, Mr. Trump cited Mr. Kim’s offers not to produce or proliferate weapons, without mentioning the many caveats. He went on to say that he looked forward “to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!”

He swung to the other extreme, declaring after Singapore that the nuclear threat from the North was overa statement even his most loyal aides have not repeated — and that he and one of the world’s most notorious dictators “fell in love.”

.. By some measures there has been modest progress. It has been 13 months since the North tested a nuclear weapon or a long-range missile, a change that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo cite as the first fruits of what some officials now concede will be a long diplomatic push.

.. But Mr. Trump’s strategic goal, from the moment he vowed to “solve” the North Korea problem rather than repeat the mistakes of past presidents, has been to end the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, not suspend it in place.

What made North Korea’s weapons programs so much scarier in 2017

If the higher estimate is true, that would mean that North Korea has a bomb almost 17 times the size of the one that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

.. David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he believes that the Sept. 3 bomb was a “real H-Bomb” — suggesting that North Korea wasn’t lying when it said it had created a two-stage thermonuclear device shortly before this test. If this is true, it shows that North Korea has now mastered the more complicated technology that entered the U.S. and Soviet arsenals in the 1950s after the first wave of nuclear weapons.

.. Such a device dramatically increases the damage that could be inflicted on a city. It also could mean that North Korea’s missile systems can afford to be significantly less accurate when used in a real-life attack because the blast itself would be so much bigger.

.. After failed tests in 2016, North Korea appears to have shut down the Musudan program and replaced it with something better.

.. In just one year, Cotton said, Kim Jong Un has unveiled six new missile systems. In contrast, his father, Kim Jong Il, tested only two new missiles during his time as leader, and North Korean founder Kim Il Sung tested three.

.. North Korea could probably build up to a bigger event: what has been called the “Juche bird,” a test of a missile loaded with a live nuclear weapon, probably above the Pacific Ocean. “A lot of folks in the U.S. have said North Korea still lacks the capability to put it all together,” Cotton said. “North Korea has made several statements suggesting they think they might need to show us once and for all that they do have that capability.”

Slouching Toward War With North Korea

John Brennan, the former head of the C.I.A., estimates the chance of a war with North Korea at 20 to 25 percent.

Joel S. Wit, a Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University, puts it at 40 percent.

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the odds may be somewhere around 50/50.

.. Almost no expert believes that sanctions will force Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons or halt his missile program. That puts us on a collision course, for North Korea seems determined to develop a clear capacity to target the U.S. with nuclear weapons

.. the White House hints that it would rather have a war than allow the North to become a nuclear threat

.. Tammy Duckworth, a former military pilot who is now a Democratic senator from Illinois, says that from what she hears, the chance is greater than 50/50 that the president will order a strike.

.. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, has said that Trump told him he’d choose a war with North Korea over allowing it to continue on its course.

.. There is a military option: to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” Graham told the “Today” show, relaying a conversation with Trump. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here — and he’s told me that to my face.”

Graham said that if North Korea continues to test intercontinental ballistic missiles, a war is “inevitable.”

.. Eerily, on my last visit, North Koreans repeatedly said that a nuclear war with the U.S. was not only survivable but winnable.

The U.S. must now choose among three awful options:

  1. A “freeze for a freeze” deal, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be pursuing;
  2. Long-term deterrence, just as we have deterred North Korea for decades from using its chemical and biological weapons;
  3. A conventional war that might escalate into a nuclear exchange.

.. North Korea may also inflame the situation with provocations at any time, such as firing a long-range missile into the sea near Guam, or conducting an atmospheric nuclear test that would send radioactive fallout drifting toward the United States.