Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a Research Fellow in the Levermore Global Scholars Program at Adelphi University and Senior Fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him: @jonathancristol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
On Wednesday, the North Korea watchers at 38 North released satellite imagery that shows North Korea making improvements to the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. While this report is unsettling, it is not at all surprising.
More unsettling than the report is the possibility that President Donald Trump believed that the North Korean nuclear threat could be solved by a handshake. In the immediate aftermath of the Singapore Summit, Trump said that, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” That statement was false, and the North Korean activity at Yongbyon proves it.
But North Korean nuclear activity is not in violation of the terms of the summit, since Trump and Kim Jong Un did not sign paperwork regarding immediate and complete denuclearization. Instead, they signed an agreement that includes a vague statement that North Korea will “work toward” denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
So far, the Trump administration is the only side moving in that direction – by agreeing to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for vague promises. The improvements at Yongbyon, however, do not even violate Kim’s vague promise, which was only to stop nuclear and ballistic missile testing.
But, more importantly, Kim has little incentive to cease nuclear activity, and for that he can thank the incoherent strategy of Trump. The “maximum pressure” campaign of ever-tightening, crippling sanctions against North Korea is all but forgotten by Washington, and even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says, “I am not going to put a timeline on [denuclearization].”
Additionally, Trump’s statements that the problem is solved gives China little incentive to apply pressure on its southern ally and gives America little leverage over China. Historically, China has been reluctant to apply too much pressure on Pyongyang for fear of a North Korean collapse that would both inundate China with refugees and potentially bring US troops to the Chinese border. It was Kim’s nuclear program that brought China into the sanctions regime. If, as the President said, the nuclear program is solved, then Washington has little recourse if China chooses to resume trading with North Korea.
CNN reports that the upgrades at Yongbyon were long-planned. These upgrades and further actions to strengthen Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrent will continue overtly in absence of an explicit agreement to stop them. And if such an agreement is reached, upgrades to the nuclear program and further research and development will likely continue in underground facilities. North Korea is not likely to give up its nuclear weapons for any reason or for any price.
Trump may think that a warm handshake and a few shared laughs will solve the North Korean problem, but Kim is not so naive. One of the world’s most brutal and repressive dictators, according to Human Rights Watch, is not going to be won over by Trump’s public remarks that he “got along great with Kim Jong Un, who wants to see wonderful things for his country” or that the two leaders share a “special bond.” Kim is going to take advantage of Trump’s pathological desire for praise and promise him the world, while continuing to develop his weapons programs.
The new developments at Yongbyon are not, on their face, cause for concern. But there are reasons to worry about the 38 North report. If Trump thinks that Kim agreed not to continue with his program, then this report (if discussed on his preferred news network) might cause Trump to return to his previous belligerent rhetoric vis-a-vis North Korea. If Trump thinks that this report makes him look weak, then he may be susceptible to John Bolton’s argument that there is a “legal case” to mount a preventive strike against North Korea.
Trump may think that the summit in Singapore prevented a war, but that is only true in the sense that it stopped him from starting one. That said, the summit does not need to be futile – it could also be the start of a genuine and serious set of arms control and limitation negotiations. These negotiations would require patience and skill without an obvious or immediate photo-op or half-clever tweet.
But since Trump is neither known for his patience nor his restraint on social media, we can expect North Korean nuclear research and facilities upgrades to continue apace.