Two months ago, U.S. President Donald Trump held a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. For Trump, the key aim of the meeting was to extract a commitment from Kim to “denuclearize,” which for Trump meant Kim unilaterally surrendering his nuclear weapons. For Kim, the aim of the summit was to shake Trump’s hand as an equal and as the leader of a nuclear power. It was also an attempt to take the air out of the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign by showing China and Russia that Kim was making a good-faith effort to negotiate with the United States. Kim had no intention of unilaterally surrendering his nuclear weapons, which he has called North Korea’s “treasured sword of justice,” and he never committed to do so.
Sixty days since that meeting, things are going well—for Kim. Although Trump is desperate to continue claiming that he “solved” the North Korean nuclear threat at Singapore, as many predicted, North Korea continues to expand its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals and has played its diplomatic hand brilliantly. It has burned a lot of time while taking largely cosmetic steps on its nuclear weapons program, such as partially destroying its nuclear test site and engine test facility, neither of which it needs to mass-produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. These steps give up just enough to keep Trump at bay and allow Beijing and Moscow to provide Pyongyang with trade and energy, thereby deflating maximum pressure. How did North Korea get to this point, and where do we go from here?
THE NUCLEAR QUESTION
In Singapore, Kim signed his name to a declaration pledging “to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Denuclearization, however, was the third step in the sequence of commitments, after establishing “new U.S.-DPRK relations” and building a “peace regime” with the United States. Pyongyang is now reminding Washington that sequence matters: work toward denuclearization will follow only after efforts are
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