It’s no question that the US-North Korea summit was historic. And it’s no question that any signs that can be seen right now are positive regarding where the process could go.
But if there was hope that the summit would clarify crucial details – about how completely denuclearization would remove the North’s nuclear infrastructure, about verification and about timing – those details were not clarified.
In typical obscure fashion, US President Donald Trump said at a post-summit news conference on Tuesday that North Korean denuclearization would “start very soon” and occur “as fast as mechanically and physically” possible, but also that “it does take a long time to pull off complete denuclearization.”
The closest to concrete Trump got was when he shared a detail that was not in the agreement he signed with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – that Pyongyang will soon destroy a missile engine testing site.
While destroying that site is significant, the North has in the past made even more significant concessions in dismantling aspects of its nuclear program, only to reverse those concessions later on.
So timing for denuclearization is unclear.
What about the timing of removing sanctions? Here, Trump made a potentially significant statement, though it may have been offthe- cuff and may not represent final policy.
The US president said that sanctions will be removed from Pyongyang once its nuclear weapons are “no longer a factor.”
If read literally, this could mean that Trump would be ready to start lifting sanctions before North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure has actually been dismantled, and that the focus would be on either removing its nuclear weapons or somehow altering their status so that they will not be a threat.
This does not mean that Trump might not demand a full dismantling of Kim’s nuclear infrastructure, but it does make the potential future deal with North Korea sound more similar to the Iran deal
, in terms of offering sanctions relief before irreversible dismantling occurs.
On a side note, Trump could argue that his deal or process with the North is superior to the Iran deal, in that Kim has already halted all missile testing for over seven months and has committed to do so indefinitely – something that Iran has stridently resisted.
Trump was most evasive regarding verification. He seemed to credit the North with eliminating its nuclear testing site before the summit, though that was verified only by selected members of the media from a distance and not by a nuclear professional up close. He said he had “the feel” that Pyongyang really wanted a deal and would not cheat this time.
But if some critics have asked for a full North Korean declaration of its nuclear program within 30-90 days – a requirement causing negotiations to break down in the past – there was no hint of that on Tuesday, other than the mutual commitment to working on moving things forward as quickly as possible.
Trump did reveal some interesting details and possibilities on how far the US is willing to go to get a deal.
He said that the US has now halted any future war games with South Korea – something he had refused to do before the summit. Trump even went so far as to call the war games “provocative,” seeming to adopt Kim’s narrative on that issue.
Regarding withdrawing US troops or nuclear capabilities from South Korea – a long-held North Korean demand that past US administrations have brushed off – the US president first said “we are not reducing anything.” However, he then said that he “wants to bring our soldiers back home” – though not yet.
Both of these statements – and others by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis – indicate that the US is finally open to some kind of redeployment of its troops and capabilities over time as part of a broader deal than had not previously been considered.
Previous administrations merely offered economic benefits for denuclearization, and certainly did not flirt publicly with any kind of withdrawals at such earlier stages like Trump did on Tuesday.
Finally, Trump veered briefly into a comparison with the Iran nuclear deal. While he made some tough statements signaling that he believes he has Iran on the run and is succeeding to reduce Tehran’s adventurism in the Middle East and especially in Syria, he also said that he hoped Iran would watch the North Korean negotiations to see that they should sign a new and “real deal.”
With the lack of detail shared so far, other than a halt to missile testing, it is unclear exactly what he expects Iran to see.
Trump succeeded in jump-starting a potentially serious negotiation with North Korea on Tuesday. It may even turn into a process which could positively pressure Iran into a better nuclear deal, especially if the US is ready for a bigger deal, including redeploying aspects of its forces on the Korean Peninsula.
But determining whether this process is truly different from past failed processes will depend on the US more specifically defining full denuclearization and its timing, the timing for sanctions relief and defining verification – and getting Kim to start making more than just promises.