U.S. policy and Pyongyang’s game plan: Will we accept a nuclear-armed North Korea?

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un walk together before their working lunch during their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. Picture taken June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Executive summary

Two months after the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, there are clear signs that the DPRK does not intend to give up its nuclear weapons program. The failure of the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit to reach a credible denuclearization agreement has now become apparent. A frustrated Trump administration will reportedly soon send Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang to again argue the case for denuclearization. His previous visit revealed much about North Korea’s intentions, none of it good.

The DPRK is aggressively trying to define the understandings reached in Singapore as about something other than denuclearization. Dismissing the growing evidence of Pyongyang’s bad faith, the Trump administration has insisted that all is well and that denuclearization is on track—an approach that is both naïve and delusional. And now, North Korea is challenging the American president to make a “bold decision” and reject the findings of the U.S. intelligence community, as he has done on numerous occasions on issues related to Russia.

The president continues to tout the success of his North Korea policy, even as the evidence mounts that Pyongyang is being less than forthcoming on denuclearization. This is a dangerous game. A U.S. policy of “strategic optimism” will increasingly require Washington to ignore North Korean actions that conflict with the picture the Trump administration is trying to paint. The White House may soon find itself becoming a cheerleader for and defender of a regime that intends to retain its nuclear weapons in order to preserve its existence, threaten its neighbors, deter the United States, and draw Washington into an endless arms control negotiation, thereby legitimizing Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons.

The administration’s current policy approach is eroding international support for tough measures against the Pyongyang regime and narrowing Washington’s options. Kim Jong-un, who is playing a longer, strategic game, understands this and believes that he can have both a better relationship with the United States and keep his nuclear weapons. Barring a change in U.S. policy, he may be right that he can have his cake and eat it too.

The time has come for a radical shift in the U.S. approach. The Trump administration needs a “Plan B” to deal with the probability that Pyongyang is doing what it has done with every previous U.S. administration: exploiting diplomacy and negotiations to buy time. The president should insist that North Korea take immediate, substantial, and irreversible steps toward denuclearization. The time for “window dressing” moves has passed.

For two months, Kim Jong-un has been given a free pass and provided rhetorical “cover” as he has used the Singapore summit to shift the narrative away from denuclearization and toward his goal of gaining acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. The Trump administration has an urgent responsibility to prevent Pyongyang from achieving that goal. The coming days, and in particular Secretary Pompeo’s visit to North Korea, will be a major test of the administration’s determination to secure the complete denuclearization of North Korea. Failure is not an option.

In this context, this brief provides a series of recommendations that could comprise such a new approach, including steps that the United States should be prepared to take if North Korea cooperates.