A secret military base. Covert talks among spies. And a president who seems to be increasingly disconnected from reality.
Just another remarkable weekend in the long-running nuclear stalemate between the United States and North Korea.
On Sunday, President Donald Trump tweeted that his administration has made “tremendous progress” in negotiations with Pyongyang over ending its nuclear and missile programs — despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
The next day, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, published a report exposing an undisclosed North Korean missile base. And there could be as many as 20 such secret bases, according to the report. That complicates US efforts to get a full list of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities as a good-faith step in negotiations.
The Wall Street Journal also published an in-depth report Monday detailing secret talks between US and North Korean spies that have been held on and off for about a decade. The report shows that while diplomacy between the two countries has certainly intensified in the Trump era, the current administration has benefited greatly from past efforts.
All this comes just days after Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to meet for a second summit by February’s end.
Put together, it shows how Trump’s North Korea policies aren’t particularly special — and may in fact be failing.
“There’s little that’s happened so far to give us reason to believe Trump will finally crack the North Korea code,” Michael Fuchs, a top Asia official at the State Department from 2013 to 2016, tells me.
If you missed any of this because you were too busy enjoying your long weekend, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.
Trump says he’s made “tremendous progress” with North Korea. The reality is not so rosy.
On Sunday, the president bragged on Twitter about his administration’s efforts to improve relations with North Korea to eventually have it dismantle its nuclear program.
The Media is not giving us credit for the tremendous progress we have made with North Korea. Think of where we were at the end of the Obama Administration compared to now. Great meeting this week with top Reps. Looking forward to meeting with Chairman Kim at end of February!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 20, 2019
Trump definitely has a point: Despite testing weapons at breakneck speed since 2013, North Korea hasn’t detonated a nuclear device since September 2017 or tested a missile since that November. Last May, Pyongyang returned three American hostages that the Kim regime had held for months. And in June 2018, Trump met Kim in Singapore for the first-ever meeting between sitting leaders of the two countries in hopes of kick-starting negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
But Trump also has a point when he says that the media is not giving him enough credit for this “tremendous progress.” That’s because, despite the very real drop in tensions between the two sides, there has been almost no progress when it comes to the actual nuclear negotiations.
Since Singapore, US officials and experts tell me that the countries have held zero working-level talks — that is, talks between lower-level officials intended to work out the nuts and bolts of a deal. Most available evidence actually points to North Korea actually improving its weapons program — not dismantling it.
On top of that, China and Russia, two countries North Korea relies on heavily for its economic survival, are increasingly pushing to remove the stringent economic sanctions the United Nations placed on Pyongyang in 2017 in response to its provocative missile tests. Those sanctions partly helped bring North Korea to the negotiating table; now, officials fear that if those costly penalties start to disappear, North Korea may have less incentive to want to continue negotiating with the US.
“The only one who’s been making steady progress for the past year is Kim Jong Un,” Lindsey Ford, a former Asia security specialist at the Defense Department, tells me.
And even with a second summit on the books for next month, few experts believe Trump and Kim will be able to get past the current impasse in negotiations and strike a deal.
Right now, the two sides are stuck on one fundamental issue: America is demanding that North Korea offer a full, detailed list of its nuclear inventory before the US lifts any sanctions on the country; Pyongyang, on the other hand, is demanding that the sanctions be lifted before it offers the full list and begins to seriously downgrade its nuclear capabilities.
It’s possible that Trump and Kim will be able to work out a solution to this stalemate when they meet face to face in February, but experts aren’t holding out much hope.
“The president has no interest in the detailed technical issues that will need to be discussed to put a meaningful cap on North Korea’s programs,” says Ford.
A secret North Korean military base makes everything more complicated
As if intentionally meant to mock Trump’s Sunday tweet, experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank issued a new report Monday detailing the existence of a missile base Pyongyang has conveniently failed to let the world know about.
They found the Sino-ri missile base, which lies about 130 miles north of the border between North and South Korea, using satellite photos taken last December and their expertise on North Korea’s forces. The installation is one of the oldest of approximately 20 — yes, 20 — undeclared North Korean military bases that CSIS researchers believe currently exist.
The report adds that North Korea’s military uses Sino-ri as a headquarters for one of its missile brigades that operates the Nodong medium-range missile. That means if Kim ever ordered a strike on South Korea or Japan, it’s likely some of those missiles — which could carry nuclear warheads on them — would fly out of Sino-ri.
This is important for two reasons.
First, it’s not comforting to know that North Korea still has military sites full of dangerous weapons that it is actively trying to hide. In the still-unlikely event of a war, North Korea could conceivably launch weapons from unknown locations. That makes it extremely hard to plan for, let alone defend against, potential missile attacks.
Of course, it is possible that spies in the US, South Korea, Japan, China, or elsewhere know the locations of all of North Korea’s bases and their military capabilities, but for obvious reasons haven’t made that public.
But that brings us to the second reason, which is much more immediate: As the CSIS report states, Sino-ri “does not appear to be the subject of denuclearization negotiations between the United States and North Korea.”
That’s a problem. As mentioned above, one of the main sticking points in US-North Korea nuclear talks is that the Trump administration wants to see a full list of all Pyongyang’s weapons and sites. But getting that list seems impossible if Kim’s regime won’t admit the existence of some of them.
So what the Sino-ri discovery really shows is how difficult it will be to make any real progress in the US-North Korea negotiations.
The US and North Korea have actually talked for 10 years
It seems that some of the progress Trump has made with North Korea is due at least in part to the efforts of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that the CIA under the Obama administration opened up a “back channel” — that is, a covert way to communicate between governments — with North Korea’s spies. That led to at least three secret trips to Pyongyang by top CIA officials, including two by then-acting CIA Director Michael Morell in 2012.
That back channel basically went silent toward the end of the Obama years, the Journal reports. But Trump’s team still seems to have benefited from those efforts — specifically, in August 2017, when then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo used this same back channel to arrange a meeting between a CIA official and the North Koreans.
Washington and Pyongyang have talked for years through the so-called New York channel, a separate back channel that the US uses to exchange messages with North Korea’s foreign ministry. That’s important since neither nation has an embassy in the other’s country.
The problem is that the North Korean foreign ministry is less influential than the Kim regime’s spies or, of course, the officials in Kim’s inner circle. The advantage of the CIA-led communications, then, is that they allow America to talk directly with those who have access to Kim, many of whom reject improving US-North Korea ties.
These clandestine talks, which started around 2009, have been useful for both sides on numerous occasions over the years. They’ve allowed the deescalation of tensions during crises; they enabled former President Bill Clinton to travel to Pyongyang in August 2009 and bring back detained American journalists; and they’ve functioned as a way to discuss paths toward a denuclearization deal.
Of course, that communications pathway failed in normalizing US-North Korea ties. But its existence played a key role in setting the stage for the thawing of relations we’ve experienced during the Trump administration.
In other words, any success Trump has with North Korea may force him to say, “Thanks, Obama.”