North Koreaâ€™s young leader, Kim Jong Un, seems determined to turn down the heat in the conflict over his nuclear weapons. Kim seeks survival of his dynastic regime; his country remains an economic basket case; he longs for regional respect and power. At the same time, he may well hope to hold on to his nuclear arsenal. All of these are reasons to think he will be a tough and wily negotiator, and that he must be pressed hard for transparency about his nuclear and missile programs, and for verification of his promises.
Just weeks after the Singapore summit with President Donald Trump, new questions are being raised in intelligence reports about Kimâ€™s capabilities and intentions. In the latest, U.S. spy agencies are seeing signs that North Korea is constructing missiles at a factory at Sanumdong that produced the countryâ€™s first intercontinental ballistic missiles. Previously, there were questions about a secret uranium- enrichment site and plans to hide nuclear weapons work. Trump recklessly declared after the summit that North Korea was â€śno longer a Nuclear Threat.â€ťIn fact, except for the relatively minor dismantlement of an engine test stand, there is no evidence that North Korea has changed direction. Trump made a concession in calling off joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, but what has he gotten in return? Trump celebrates the lack of nuclear and missile testing by North Korea, which is indeed a positive. But silence does not mean Pyongyang is idle.
At best, a long negotiation lies ahead. The summit produced goodwill but nothing concrete on nuclear weapons, just vague statements and undefined promises. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo needs to test the North Korean leader through real bargaining to see what kind of gains can be locked down. Promises alone are insufficient, especially given the Kim dynastyâ€™s record of extortion, dealbreaking and deception.
The fluid state of affairs can take the pressure off China, giving it room to ease sanctions against North Korea. Also, Trumpâ€™s trade war with China may well leave President Xi Jinping much less willing to join with the United States to influence Kim. In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in has staked his future on getting results from the current detente - results that are so far elusive - and not going back to Trumpâ€™s threats of â€śfire and fury.â€ť
The latest satellite photography is worrisome, showing signs of missile containers, supply trucks and work activity at the factory, perhaps to build the powerful Hwasong-15 missile, perhaps for something else. But overhead pictures cannot see into the minds of leaders. It is simply not yet clear what Kim intends to do, and it is important to find out. What must happen next is a serious negotiation at which Kim can be challenged and any concessions verified.