The ICAS Lectures


The Trump-Kim Summit: Outcomes, Prognosis, and The Needed Test For Kim Jong-un

Larry Niksch

ICAS Summer Symposium Prologue

June 14, 2018 1:00 PM - 5:00 PM
US Senate SVC Room 212-10
US Capitol Building
Capitol Hill
Washington DC

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Larry A. Niksch

The Trump-Kim Summit: Outcomes, Prognosis, and The Needed Test For Kim Jong-un

Larry Niksch 1

Remarks at the Institute for Corean-American Studies Symposium, June 14, 2018

President Trump's Approach at the Summit

At the Singapore summit, President Trump gave high priority to and high confidence in establishing a personal relationship with Kim Jong-un. He repeatedly described "good chemistry" between them. The President stated his belief that this personal relationship will influence Kim to take positive actions on the nuclear issue and possibly other issues. In his comments throughout the summit, the President showed confidence in his ability to persuade.

An important feature of President Trump's approach were his numerous predictions that Kim Jong-un soon will take positive measures as a result of the summit. The President took a optimistic view of Kim's intentions. He spoke of Kim moving toward denuclearization "very quickly." Kim would take "some good action." He would "start a process that's going to make a lot of people very happy and very safe." Chairman Kim "wants to do the right thing."

It is unclear whether President Trump made these positive predictions as diplomatic flattery towards Kim Jong-un or whether he knows of promises and commitments by Kim. Secretary of State Pompeo that U.S. and North Korean negotiators had reached understandings on several issues that were not included in the joint statement issued by Trump and Kim at the conclusion of the summit. But he gave no indication of the content of these understandings. We also do not know if any of these understandings are in writing or just so-called verbal understandings.

President Trump also gave emphasis to attempting to turn Kim Jong-un's thinking toward a modernizing economic development of North Korea (as an alternative to nuclear weapons). The President used Singapore's economic opulence as a model for a future North Korean economic transformation. The highlight of this was a video of futuristic North Korean beaches with condominiums, hotels, and resorts. President Trump no doubt used an economic card in view of Kim Jong-un's recent pronouncements emphasizing the need for greater economic priorities for North Korea.

President Trump's strategy toward North Korea thus is very different from the strategies of the past three U.S. administrations (Clinton, Bush, and Obama). Personal relationships, positive predictions, and an economic card in U.S. diplomacy were largely absent from previous U.S. diplomacy toward North Korea. However, Trump's opportunity to carry out this strategy at the summit should be seen within the context of the Trump Administration's success in strengthening United Nations sanctions against North Korea and the Administration's more visible demonstration of American military power in the Korea-Japan region. The summit ended on a positive note between Trump and Kim. There was no North Korean walkout, no breaking up of the summit, as has happened unfortunately in past U.S.-North Korean negotiations.

What Did Trump Get From Kim?

Personal diplomacy, flattery, optimistic predictions, and a modern economic vision gained President Trump no more than modest responses from Kim Jong-un. Their joint statement was very general with no specific commitments toward denuclearization. Kim did commit to "complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula." This produced criticism from some American observers that the joint statement did not use the U.S. phrase "complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization (CVID)." North Korea long has objected to that terminology. However, Kim's "commitment" in the joint statement does contrast with North Korea's position since early 2009 that it is an irrevocable nuclear weapons power.

Moreover, Chairman Kim did commit North Korea to post-summit, "follow-up" negotiations with the United States. These are to be held between Secretary of State Pompeo and a high-level North Korean official to be designated. This will end a long period of no substantive nuclear negotiations since North Korea walked out of six party talks in December 2008, the only exception being the brief negotiation of the failed "Leap Day" agreement between the Obama Administration and North Korea in February 2012.

President Trump stated that Kim Jong-un promised to shut down a prime missile engine test facility. If Kim fulfills the promise, this will have importance. The main missile engine test facility reportedly has been active in the last four years and no doubt has contributed to the rapid progress in missile development during that period.

While not connected to the nuclear issue, Kim's promise (according to President Trump) to resume searches for the remains of U.S. soldiers killed or missing-in-action during the Korean War will resonate well with American opinion if North Korea fulfills it.

The intangible in this are Trump's predictions of future positive actions by Kim and Secretary Pompeo's assertion that there are U.S.-North Korean understandings that were not put in the joint statement.

What Did Kim Jong-un Get?

President Trump contended that he made no major concessions at the summit. Most observers, however, believe that by agreeing to a suspension of major U.S.-South Korean military exercises, the President acceded at least in part to a key, long-standing North Korean policy objective. That objective is to gain an end to three U.S. military exercises and operations for the defense of South Korea. One is the major U.S.-R.O.K. exercises. The second is the regular but temporary U.S. deployment of advanced forces and weapons into South Korea for rotational training. These include F-15 fighters based on Okinawa, F-22 stealth fighters, and recently F-35 fighters. The third is U.S. military exercises offshore of Korea. This involves U.S. naval forces; but in North Korea's eyes, the key is U.S. exercises of heavy bombers from Guam.

North Korea long has demanded an end to all three of these operations, describing them as a U.S. plot to stage a nuclear attack on North Korea. Part of Pyongyang's goal appears to be the isolation of U.S. forces in South Korea by preventing adequate training over a prolonged period. North Korean leaders no doubt know that such a situation likely would lead U.S. military leaders to consider withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea to another locale where they could train adequately. Another part of North Korea's objective may be to influence the United States to withdraw heavy bombers from Guam back to the United States and thus remove them from active operations related to the U.S. defense commitment to South Korea.

President Trump has not suspended military operations and exercises except for the major U.S.-South Korean exercises. He indicated that he would keep these exercises suspended as long as active nuclear negotiations were underway. However, he went further in describing the military exercises as very expensive and "provocative." He also singled out the U.S. heavy bomber exercises from Guam with these characterizations, suggesting that he is thinking about suspending these exercises.

President Trump's use of the word "provocative" to describe the military exercises may indicate a fundamental negative view toward them. But it also may reflect the President's stated optimism about future denuclearization and Kim Jong-un's actions. Nevertheless, the suspension-whether confined to the U.S.-South Korean exercises or expanded to the other U.S. military operations and exercises-represent an important unilateral concession to North Korea. This is all the more so because a reliable source told me that North Korean intelligence chief, Kim Yong-chol, pressed Trump and Pompeo on the military exercises issue during his three meetings with them in Pyongyang, New York, and the White House.

Moreover, the source also informed me that in his visits to China prior to the summit, President Xi Jin-ping pressed Kim Jong-un to toughen his position on U.S. forces. President Trump's suspension of the U.S.-South Korean military exercises, in fact, amounts to a defacto acceptance of the China-Russia proposal of "freeze for freeze": a freeze in U.S.-South Korean military exercises and a freeze in North Korean nuclear tests and long-range missile tests. It should be acknowledged that President Trump made the valid point that North Korea has suspended these tests since November 2017.

If President Trump expands the suspensions to the wider U.S. military operations and exercises, he will give away an important bargaining chip if nuclear negotiations reach the stage of dismantlement of North Korean nuclear facilities and disassembly of nuclear warheads. Changes in exercises and U.S. force strength in South Korea should be offered only if North Korea formally agreed to comprehensive dismantlement and disassembly; and these changes should be carried out only as North Korea implemented dismantlement and disassembly.

Another likely gain for Kim Jong-un is increased influence over South Korean opinion and potentially South Korean policy. President Moon Jae-in reacted positively toward the Singapore summit. He did not receive prior notice of President Trump's intention to suspend U.S.-R.O.K. military exercises, but he has accepted the decision. The same seems true of the South Korean public. Polls showed a large majority of South Koreans positive about the results of the summit and supportive of President Moon. (President Moon's party won a substantial victory in local government elections following the summit.)

The Need for a Decisive Test of Kim Jong-un's Intention

Despite President Trump's positive prognosis about Kim Jong-un, Kim's statements at the summit, including in the joint declaration, left uncertain his real intentions toward the nuclear issue and the related military security issues on the Korean peninsula. This creates a need soon to clarify his intentions through a decisive test.

Two Reasons. There are at least two reasons for the Trump Administration to formulate such a decisive test for Chairman Kim.

The first is the prospect and danger that the follow-up nuclear negotiations could be protracted, even over several years. In such a scenario, North Korea would offer only small changes to its nuclear and missile programs. It would heighten demands for the lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions and for further limitations on U.S. military forces in South Korea and the Western Pacific (Japan and Guam). North Korea would continue to try to manipulate South Korean Government policies and South Korean political and public opinion towards greater criticisms of the United States.

If such a protracted negotiation were coupled with a continued suspension of U.S.- R.O.K. and U.S. military exercises, this would heighten controversy and re-evaluations of the U.S. military presence in South Korea and possibly in Japan and Guam.

At the previous session today, former Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, warned of the dangers of a long drawn out negotiation. His warning is correct. In past negotiations, including the lengthy six party talks (2003-2008), the North Koreans manipulated and out-maneuvered the Americans. North Korea gained important concessions from the United States but conceded nothing that limited the progress of its nuclear and missile programs.

Reason number two relates to two statements made by Kim Jong-un, which have been largely forgotten amidst the many statements coming out of the Singapore summit. The first Kim statement came on November 29, 2017, following the successful test of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile. Chairman Kim asserted that with this successful test, North Korea had achieved "the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power." North Korea's leading news broadcaster, Ri Chun-hee echoed Chairman Kim, declaring "this missile is far more technologically advanced,"and it "signifies that our rocket development process has been completed."

The second statement came in Kim Jong-un's New Years address for 2018. He declared that "the entire area of the U.S. mainland is within our nuclear strike range." He then made this promise for 2018: "This year, we should focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment." He added that the United States in 2018 could "never start a war against me or our country."

Kim Jong-un's two statements had these crucial meanings. First, Kim promised that North Korea in 2018 would start to build an arsenal of ICBMs that could strike the United States with nuclear warheads. Second, Kim had decided to make the Hwasong-15 the ICBM of this arsenal. Third, he believes that North Korea has developed a nuclear warhead that the Hwangsong-15 could successfully carry to targets in the United States. Moreover, Kim's statements were in line with the July 2017 forecast of the U.S. intelligence community and then C.I.A. Director Pompeo that North Korea in 2018 would be able to produce in assembly line numbers "a reliable nuclear-capable ICBM."

There is nothing in Kim's recent positive gestures toward the United States and South Korea to indicate that he has abandoned his promise to start building an arsenal of nuclear capable ICBMs in 2018. The end of nuclear and missile testing thus could be in line with his promise and the apparent selection of the Hwasong-15 as the ICBM of choice rather than a conciliatory gesture toward the United States.

The promise has this implication for any prolonged nuclear negotiations. As the arsenal builds over months, Kim likely will gain a strengthened negotiating position. The danger will grow that he will use this to harden diplomatic protection of his nuclear and missile weaponry and to steadily increase demands for concessions from the United States. That appears to be the danger that Curt Campbell warned against. Thus, as we have learned from North Korea's nuclear and missile advances since 2009, time probably is not on the side of the United States. Real progress in post-summit negotiations will have to appear quickly. That will necessitate a fundamental U.S. test for Kim Jong-un's intentions.

The Heart of the Test: The Verification Issue

The test for Kim Jong-un should be his response to a comprehensive verification proposal by Secretary Pompeo immediately in upcoming nuclear negotiations. Verification of North Korean nuclear facilities, nuclear materials, nuclear warheads, and missiles would be necessary gain the fullest possible disclosure by North Korea of these assets. It would be necessary to guarantee a full dismantlement of nuclear facilities, disassembling of nuclear warheads, and custody of nuclear materials (plutonium and enriched uranium).

Moreover, North Korea has a history of obstructing and undermining attempts by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from the time of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. The past three U.S. administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama) agreed to or acquiesced in North Korea's undermining of the IAEA. They gave low priority to verification, which weakened agreements reached by each U.S. administrations with North Korea. The result was added freedom for North Korea to proceed with production of enriched uranium and plutonium and building the current stockpile of an estimated 60 nuclear warheads (D.I.A. estimate).

This history adds to the necessity of a test of Kim Jong-un's willingness to give up his nuclear weapons program. The essential test should be a proposed agreement by Secretary Pompeo for installation of a verification-inspection system within North Korea. It initially likely would have to be the IAEA. Most important, a U.S. proposal must contain at least five elements of power and authority to the inspecting organization:

  1. Right to inspect throughout North Korean territory, not just the plutonium center of Yongbyon.
  2. Right to inspect any facility, including military facilities.
  3. Right to conduct short notice inspections after a site is designated by the inspecting organization. Inspection within 72 hours of designation would be appropriate. No more than one week.
  4. Right to use full methods of inspections, including the taking of samples for laboratory analysis.
  5. Access to North Korean nuclear scientists and technicians for questioning.
North Korea has obstructed and undermined all of these elements of IAEA attempted inspections. Now, since the terminology being used for denuclearization is "the Korean peninsula," such an agreement would have to cover South Korea. The IAEA currently conducts regular inspections in South Korea.

Such a verification agreement also would need a timetable specifying early implementation to secure entrance into North Korea by the inspecting organization and a full functioning of inspections.

If Kim Jong-un agreed to such a verification agreement, the Trump Administration could move ahead with negotiations with a significant accomplishment and the President's strategy and optimism in tact. However, if Kim resisted the agreement, especially by reiterating North Korea's obstruction tactics, the Trump Administration would know absolutely that continued negotiations would lead down the familiar failed path of past attempts.

In Singapore, the day before the summit, Secretary of State Pompeo spoke to reporters. He stressed the verification issue. He described it as the missing element in previous U.S. agreements with North Korea. The United States, he asserted, needed to ensure "a system sufficiently robust that we're able to verify these outcomes, and it's only once the 'V' happens that we will proceed apace." The Secretary's remark summarized the need for the Trump Administration to give inspections and verification the first priority in the post-summit negotiations with North Korea.

The challenge for the Trump Administration is to do this. The challenge for Kim Jong-un is to agree to an effective inspection system-based on the elements described above-if he is sincere about denuclearization. If he should agree, negotiations can move forward. If he should not agree, President Trump should carry out his vow to "walk away."

1 The author is an ICAS Fellow. He also is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served as a Specialist in Asian Affairs with the Congressional Research Service from 1966 to 2010. The views expressed are his views alone and do not represent any official position of these organizations.

This page last updated June 27, 2018 jdb