clock menu more-arrow no yes

The past 3 days of surprising North Korea news, explained

The end of North Korean nuclear tests? Did North Korea agree to denuclearize? Why did Trump send that angry tweet?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are potentially meeting in just two months — and a flurry of weekend activity was a reminder of how frenzied the last-minute preparations for a historic face-to-face are likely to be.

On Friday, Kim announced his country would no longer test nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, which he used to threaten the world for much of 2017. Kim said his country didn’t need to conduct more tests because he already knows how effective they are — which is scary.

On Sunday, Trump tweeted that Pyongyang agreed to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs so that it can never attack another country with them — but it hasn’t. And nine hours later, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump plans to tell Kim his country must take concrete steps to scrap its programs before the US lifts any of the sanctions that have been battering its economy for years.

It looks like both leaders have already started to position themselves ahead of their encounter. That means both sides may play out the high-stakes negotiation in public before they actually meet in private.

If you missed any of it because you wanted to enjoy a North Korea-free weekend, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

North Korea will stop testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
STR/AFP/Getty Image

Kim shocked the world last Friday.

“From April 21, North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Kim decreeing. “The North will shut down a nuclear test site in the country’s northern side to prove the vow to suspend nuclear test.”

That’s a potentially huge deal. Much of the animosity between Washington and Pyongyang last year grew because Kim tested very threatening weapons in 2017. Last September, Pyongyang tested its largest nuclear bomb to date, one that was seven times stronger than the weapon America dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. And last November, Kim tested a missile that could reach all of the United States.

Now, it seems, Kim feels satisfied his weapons are sufficiently powerful, but there is some mystery as to why. One possibility is that he now knows the strength of his weapons arsenal. Conducting more tests wouldn’t tell him more than he already knows, but it would anger the US and its key regional allies South Korea and Japan — and he may think the gain doesn’t outweigh the risk.

Second, the US-led campaign to impose increasingly strong economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang — through stringent sanctions and global isolation — may have taken its toll. North Korea is an extremely impoverished country, but it spends about 22 percent of its funds to bankroll the military. Meanwhile, North Koreans live on about $1,700 a year.

Kim has made improving the economy one of his priorities. When he gained power in 2011, he outlined a strategy known as byungjin, or “parallel advance.” The crux of the strategy was the dual, rapid improvement of North Korea’s nuclear and economic prowess. But on Friday, Kim announced his regime would scrap that strategy for a “new strategic line,” namely, rebuilding the North Korean economy. Redirecting resources from weapons to the economy — perhaps to improve the lives of everyday North Koreans — could form part of that effort.

And finally, Kim has an important meeting with Moon, South Korea’s president, on Thursday. Both leaders will negotiate — and potentially sign — a peace treaty to end the Korean War. That conflict ended in an armistice in 1953, not a peace treaty, so the Koreas technically remain at war.

All parties to that war — including China and the United States — must sign a peace treaty for it to officially end, says Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean history at Columbia University. Promising not to test any more weapons might make the Kim-Moon summit at the inter-Korean border a little calmer.

South Korea made its own conciliatory gesture on Monday by turning off loudspeakers at the inter-Korean border. Seoul stopped blaring K-pop — South Korea’s world-famous brand of popular music (for example, “Gangnam Style”) — into North Korea as a show of good faith before Kim meets Moon. Seoul uses that music as a propaganda tool to show it’s more advanced than its northern neighbor. North Korea does something similar, although its music consists of less catchy propaganda tunes.

But let’s be clear: North Korea could restart testing at any time, and Kim’s statement doesn’t say his country will never try out weapons again. So it’s worth not getting too excited over this — even though some already have.

“North Korea suspending its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles is a welcome move, but it’s important for the president and others not to overstate its significance,” Mintaro Oba, a former Obama State Department official who worked on North Korean affairs, told me.

Well ...

Trump said North Korea “agreed to denuclearization.” That’s not true.

Trump, apparently watching TV on Sunday morning, didn’t like what Meet the Press host Chuck Todd said about North Korea.

“Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd of Fake News NBC just stated that we have given up so much in our negotiations with North Korea, and they have given up nothing,” Trump tweeted. “Wow, we haven’t given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!”

There are two problems with that tweet (aside from the president attacking a journalist on social media).

First, North Korea hasn’t agreed to denuclearization — that is, the complete dismantling of its nuclear program. In the same statement where Kim promised to pause testing weapons, Kim called his nuclear program a “powerful treasured sword,” which shows just how much he values it.

But there’s also little incentive for North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. The regime believes the US and South Korea plan to invade and topple its government, and having the ability to strike the US or its closest allies with a nuclear weapon serves as a clear deterrent against that outcome.

Kim is keenly aware of the relevant history. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein persuaded much of the world that he had restarted his country’s nuclear weapons program; he hadn’t, but the boasts helped spark the 2003 invasion that drove him from power. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi gave up his program to build closer ties to the West but was eventually ousted from power and killed by a mob.

And second, the US has given Kim a major concession: a meeting with Trump. Past American administrations knew how much North Korea wanted the prestige of meeting a US president, and viewed a summit as a prize Washington would only offer when Pyongyang acceded to its demands. But Trump flipped that on his head, agreeing in March to sit down with Kim in either late May or early June regardless of whether Kim actually showed any clear signs of dismantling his nuclear arsenal.

That’s a big win for North Korea, as the regime wants to look like a legitimate power. Sitting down with the leader of the world’s most powerful country is one way to do that — and all Kim had to do was suggest his country wouldn’t test weapons anymore.

But what matters most is what both leaders actually talk about when they meet. It turns out some of the talking points have started to leak out.

Here’s what Trump will tell Kim

Impersonators of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un pose during the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.
Impersonators of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un pose during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.
Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

On Sunday evening, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump will convey two major demands to Kim when they meet.

First, North Korea must dismantle its nuclear program very quickly. And second, Trump won’t lift sanctions on Pyongyang until it has made substantial progress in that dismantling effort.

It’s a bold move, but it makes some sense. In past negotiations, North Korea offered some concessions in exchange for economic relief but then backed out or cheated on a deal. Pyongyang is not particularly trustworthy, so Trump wants to see actual progress before he rewards the regime.

“When the president says that he will not make the mistakes of the past, that means the US will not be making substantial concessions, such as lifting sanctions, until North Korea has substantially dismantled its nuclear programs,” a senior US official told the Journal.

Robert Manning, a Koreas expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, told me there are pros and cons to Trump’s stance. “Trump is right to want to front-load a deal: big steps to dismantle and disable nuclear weapons and missiles in exchange for a significant rollback of sanctions.” The problem, he continued, is the offer is “a nonstarter. Why would they unilaterally surrender and trust Trump to give them what they want?”

Trump may be aware of the risk, per another Sunday tweet, but he believes his predecessors should’ve made similar efforts.

It’s unclear how Kim will react to this offer if Trump proposes it in two months. But the North Korean leader’s answer may influence how much Trump continues to try diplomacy instead of war to solve the nuclear problem.