The Korean nuclear roller coaster: Has time run out for a summit?

South Korean President Moon Jae-in meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their summit at the truce village of Panmunjom, North Korea, in this handout picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 27, 2018.  KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. - RC1FAB5E7670

The turbulence and drama on the Korean Peninsula over the past week defies imagination. On May 24, President Trump withdrew from his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, acting almost as impulsively as when he first agreed to the meeting in early March. Following a conciliatory response from Pyongyang’s senior nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan, the president two days later sharply reversed course and said that the summit might still take place.

Not to be outdone, on May 26 Kim Jong-un abruptly convened a second meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the North Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjom. The next day, American and North Korean officials began to interact on the language of a possible communiqué. Separate consultations between the United States and North Korea in Singapore were expected to begin today, on May 29, with North Korea represented by Kim Jong-un’s de facto chief of staff, Kim Ch’ang-soon. Additional discussions have taken place between Chinese and North Korean officials in Beijing, perhaps connected to a possible stopover by Kim Jong-un while traveling to Singapore, which would be his third visit to China in less than two months. One of Kim Jong-un’s closest aides and a vice chairman of the Korean Workers Party Central Committee, General Kim Yong-chol, is now en route to New York, and is expected to serve as the lead point-of-contact with U.S. officials in deliberations over the Singapore meeting.

These heightened activities all suggest that the summit will indeed go forward, though there has been no formal announcement to this effect.

However, two facts remain incontestable. There is as yet no U.S.-North Korea agreement on the terms of a summit, and time is running out to reach such an understanding. An unspoken but unmistakable anxiety thus pervades these intensified political and diplomatic maneuvers. Only 10 days before President Trump’s presumed departure for Singapore, it is stunning how little remains agreed to, even in broad conceptual terms. Advocates of diplomacy argue that this is the purpose of face-to-face negotiations. But the contrasts in the language and expectations of the two leaderships remain glaring, even after two visits by Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang, first as CIA director and subsequently as secretary of state.

The fundamental issue is what the summit is supposed to be about. Logistical and security arrangements have consumed ample time in discussions between the two sides. Though important, they are incidental when compared to clarifying the purposes of the talks. A day prior to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the summit, an unnamed senior U.S. official acknowledged to a CNN reporter the need for additional high-level talks, arguing that the Trump administration still did not know “whether Kim Jong-un has made a decision to denuclearize.” The official further argued that the United States still sought a good faith gesture demonstrating Kim Jong-un’s readiness to move toward complete and verifiable denuclearization. However, this objective derives from American terms of reference: It presumes that all the North’s nuclear weaponry would be dismantled, that any additional fissile material would be accounted for and removed, that highly intrusive inspections would be arranged, and that all means of weapons production would be eliminated.

Pyongyang has never assented to any of these precepts. Since North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons first became the principal issue between Washington and Pyongyang in the early 1990s, North Korea has described “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in largely political terms, arguing that it required the cessation of what it deems the U.S. “hostile policy,” to be ratified by a peace treaty between the two capitals, an array of security assurances, the abrogation of the U.S. alliance treat with South Korea, and withdrawal of all U.S. military assets from South Korea. On a few occasions, Pyongyang has equivocated on the last of these demands. However, these hints imply that North Korea is prepared to collaborate with the United States against China, and are almost laughably self-serving.

At present, all involved parties are seeking to salvage the summit, each with its own purposes in mind. President Moon Jae-in is in an especially vulnerable position. He has staked his political future on being able to mediate between Kim and Trump, without alienating either. However, when President Moon flew to Washington to meet with President Trump early last week, there was no inkling of an impending U.S. pullout. Blindsided and clearly humiliated, Moon immediately agreed to the impromptu meeting with Kim Jong-un, arguing in a subsequent press conference that “Chairman Kim made clear once again his intention to completely denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.” But Kim’s commitment is wholly aspirational, and utterly devoid of substantive or operational content. When pressed by a reporter, President Moon claimed without any supportive evidence that the United States and North Korea “are on the same page about denuclearization,” stating only that it would be up to Washington and Pyongyang to determine a roadmap to achieve this goal.

But a roadmap to what, and on whose terms? At this late date, there has been no suggestion that Washington and Pyongyang have achieved a compatible definition of denuclearization. Even as President Trump continues to dangle visions of a prosperous future for North Korea, replete with promises that the absolute power of the Kim family would remain fully protected, these assurances continue to fall on deaf ears in Pyongyang.

First Vice Minister Kim’s more conciliatory words are the first time that the summit has even been mentioned in North Korea’s domestic media. They persuaded President Trump to walk back his decision to withdraw from the talks. However, Kim’s words prefigure North Korea’s conception of the summit’s goals, and they make only the most passing, incidental reference to denuclearization. According to Kim, the summit should be “aimed at liquidating the hostile and distrusting relations of decades and erecting a new milestone for the improvement of DPRK-U.S. relations.”

Kim’s remarks suggest North Korea’s interest in open-ended negotiations with the United States, while remaining wholly elliptical on the issues. But at a minimum, Kim presumes America’s willingness to treat North Korea as a nuclear-armed state for the indefinite future, and suggest protracted negotiations that appear very similar to those undertaken by previous administrations. President Trump has repeatedly disparaged the record of his predecessors, even as he has recently acknowledged that a phased denuclearization process might be unavoidable. However, in a Party Plenum held on April 20, Kim celebrated “the completion of the state’s nuclear armed forces,” with Kim declaring that “our country…has been reborn as a world-class nuclear power.” These are not the words of someone intent on dismantling nuclear capabilities that have been the dream of the Kim dynasty for more than a half century.

Kim Jong-un knows what he wants from the summit. Does President Trump? Is the president prepared to accept the risks of an inconclusive outcome or an outright failure in Singapore? What would U.S. policy options be in the event of such a failure? Time will tell. But for now, time is running out.