President Trump remains bullish that the North Korea nuclear threat can be contained. Speaking to reporters on Saturday, the president praised the “incredible meeting” he had the day before with a top representative of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, trumpeting the “tremendous progress” the two sides had made.
The optimistic view is that the White House meeting with Kim Yong-chol, a former North Korean intelligence chief and now his government’s lead nuclear negotiator, was indeed productive, and Mr. Trump is on his way to resolving one of the world’s most complex and dangerous nuclear weapons problems.
But a path to that outcome isn’t yet visible to the outside world. North Korea has forgone nuclear tests, missile tests and rhetorical attacks for more than 400 days. That’s an important development. At the same time, however, it continues to produce nuclear fuel, weapons and missiles. It has not denuclearized, as Mr. Trump has demanded.
So, as the two leaders prepare for their second summit (reportedly next month in Vietnam), the pressure is on the Trump administration to articulate a realistic strategy for achieving a mutually agreed upon outcome.
No such strategy was evident last June when Mr. Trump broke with decades of foreign policy precedent by meeting directly with Mr. Kim in Singapore, in the first summit between American and North Korean leaders. Mr. Trump deserves credit for opening up this dialogue, but it has, so far, yielded few tangible results.
After that meeting, Mr. Trump declared that North Korea, which possesses 20 to 60 nuclear weapons, the missiles to deliver them and the facilities to make even more, was “no longer a nuclear threat.” Saying so didn’t make it so.
The one concrete product of the Singapore meeting, a concluding statement, was so poorly drafted that it laid the groundwork for months of stalemate. It committed the two leaders to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” without even defining “denuclearization,” let alone explicitly agreeing on the sequence of actions to be taken.
A new report this week about a previously secret North Korean missile base at Sino-ri, 132 miles (212 kilometers) north of the Demilitarized Zone, is a reminder of how sprawling and hidden the country’s nuclear program is and how challenging any sort of outside inspections regime might be to carry out.
Publicly, the two sides still hew to staunch positions: The Trump administration insists that tough sanctions will stay in place until North Korea completely gives up its nuclear arsenal. North Korean officials insist on sanctions relief early in the process.
But small signs of movement led to plans for the second summit. Mr. Trump backed off his insistence on immediate disarmament, and his administration recently eased travel restrictions so American aid workers and humanitarian supplies could once again enter the impoverished country.
Mr. Kim’s annual New Year’s Day speech presented a somewhat more positive view of United States-North Korea relations, an encouraging sign.
One potentially significant change is that Mr. Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, last August appointed Stephen Biegun, a retired business executive with years of experience as a Republican foreign policy adviser, as the day-to-day negotiator. He is regarded by people in both parties as having a nuanced and pragmatic view of negotiations and diplomacy.
In addition to the meetings between Kim Yong-chol and Mr. Trump in Washington last week, Mr. Biegun’s North Korean counterpart, after much delay, finally agreed to meet him in Stockholm over the weekend. Although no details were released, Swedish officials who hosted the meeting called it constructive.
The next test will be whether the two sides can develop an agenda for the summit that could lead to substantive and reciprocal actions to advance denuclearization and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Given that Mr. Kim is the sole power in North Korea, Mr. Trump’s meeting him again seems worth the effort. But if there is ever to be a nuclear deal, it will require not just high-level summitry but also hard-nosed, intensive negotiations at Mr. Biegun’s level. Mr. Trump also needs to coordinate closely with an ally, the South Korean government — instead, he’s risked alienating it by declaring that Seoul should pay more for having American troops there.
Mr. Trump will also have to make sure his own hard-liners, like John Bolton, the national security adviser, don’t sabotage negotiations if they ever show signs of traction.
Despite the renewed diplomatic momentum, many experts are skeptical that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear program. They have decades’ worth of good reasons for their concern.
But that’s not the view of Vincent Brooks, a general who until his recent retirement was in charge of United Nations Command and American Forces in South Korea. In an interview with “PBS NewsHour,” Mr. Brooks said the nuclear testing pause and other signs suggest Mr. Kim wants a “different relationship” with the United States and is prepared to give up his nuclear arsenal. “We ought to take him at his word,” Mr. Brooks said.
That proposition must be seriously tested. Even if complete denuclearization is not possible, negotiators should at least seek a permanent end to testing and the production of fissile material.