A report released on Monday by the Beyond Parallel program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington produces detailed evidence that North Korea maintains at least 13 and as many as 20 undeclared operational ballistic missile bases, including one just 50 miles north of the demilitarized zone and 80 miles from the South Korean capital, Seoul. While the report paints an unnerving picture of an undeterred, operational, and highly mobile North Korean missile program, there are good reasons not to call it a bombshell: The pun makes for poor gallows humor, for one thing, but more importantly, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has never made a commitment to freezing or dismantling his missile program.
The headline of the New York Times article covering the report reads: “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception,” but this is a bit misleading. Kim has certainly been deceptive in his dealings with the U.S. in general, but in this case, he’s really not doing anything he said he wouldn’t do. In fact, he made clear his intention to continue and even ramp up both programs this year in his 2018 New Year’s address, which instructed that “the nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.” He has yet to publicly renounce that objective.
Continuing these activities may be odious rogue-state behavior, but it doesn’t violate any commitments North Korea has made, largely because it hasn’t made any commitments at all. “Kim hasn’t broken any promises,” nuclear nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis told the Washington Post. “Instead, he’s making good on one of them — to mass produce nuclear weapons.”
Despite President Donald Trump’s triumphant declaration after his June summit meeting with Kim in Singapore that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” Kim did not actually agree to much at that meeting, least of all to abandoning his cherished nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The summit ended not with an accord but rather with a vaguely worded statement of intent to make peace and denuclearize the Korean peninsula. To the extent that Kim made any commitments in Singapore, they were vague, unverifiable, and contingent on generous reciprocal acts by the U.S.
Within weeks of the Singapore summit concluding, word began to leak from the intelligence community that the North Koreans had been actively working to expand, not restrict, their development of nuclear weapons, and by late July, intelligence officials were seeing evidence that the regime was producing more ballistic missiles. An International Atomic Energy Agency report in August also concluded that the nuclear program was continuing apace.
These reports over the summer also indicated that North Korea was working to hide the full extent of its nuclear arsenal from the U.S., perhaps as part of a pseudo-denuclearization strategy wherein it would destroy the warheads the U.S. knew about in exchange for a peace treaty and the lifting of sanctions, but retain others in secret. Such an outcome would constitute a catastrophic foreign-policy failure by the United States, albeit one Trump could spin as a historic victory for himself and his administration.
The one tangible commitment Kim has made was an announcement in April that his country would suspend nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing, which it has so far upheld. In September, Kim held out the prospect of dismantling a major nuclear testing site, if and only if the U.S. first agrees to a formal end to the Korean War. That’s not going to happen, and even if it did, North Korea has a long history of beginning to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure only to turn around and rebuild it after negotiations inevitably break down.
Sure enough, the current round of talks looks like it may be on the verge of breaking down; North Korea canceled a planned meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York last week. Meanwhile, North Korean state media has warned that Pyongyang could resume nuclear testing if the U.S. doesn’t make more concessions, and on Monday, it said small-scale joint military drills between U.S. and South Korean marines last week violated an agreement the North and South made in September to refrain from “hostile acts.” Trump had also promised in Singapore to stop holding joint military exercises with South Korea. It would be entirely in character for North Korea to use these slights as excuses for resuming the activities it has halted, or to use threats to that effect as leverage against Washington and Seoul.
On the other hand, the perfidy supposedly revealed by the CSIS report on Monday could be used by hawks in the Trump administration to undermine negotiations and make the case for a more aggressive approach to North Korea. Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, who believes the only cure for international intransigence is violent regime change, openly disdains any diplomacy with North Korea and has panned the strategy of sanctions and negotiation as worthless even as he was being enlisted to help implement it. If Bolton is trying to convince Trump that he is wasting his time talking to Kim, he just got a new talking point.
Ironically, Trump’s habit of announcing the North Korean problem is “largely solved” before anything has actually been achieved increases the likelihood of bad news like this sinking the whole process. “[T]hanks to the unrealistically high expectations Trump set at the outset of talks,” Cato Institute policy analyst Eric Gomez points out, “the report is being spun as a black mark against Trump’s approach to North Korea. … Trump should have been honest about the limits of the agreement penned at Singapore, and he should have heralded the summit as the start of a long process rather than a kind of finish line.”
Of course, it may be hard for Trump to admit that things aren’t going according to plan when just last week, he was insisting: “The sanctions are on. The missiles have stopped, the rockets have stopped.” He may also be loath to admit that the murderous tinpot Stalinist who wrote him “beautiful letters” and with whom he “fell in love” in Singapore has jilted him. In this case, Trump’s love affair with Kim and his self-image as a master deal-maker might actually work in favor of peace by motivating him to be patient and try to achieve the victory he has already declared. On the other hand, it might compel him to take a shortcut to that victory, leading to a scenario in which he gives away too much for too little, just to say he made a deal.
In the meantime, the talks between Washington and Pyongyang remain stalled at the same old impasse, with each party insisting that the other make the first move: North Korea won’t disarm without a peace treaty and sanctions relief (and probably can’t be trusted to disarm at all), while the Trump administration wants to see verifiable, unilateral disarmament before it’s willing to meet those demands (and from North Korea’s perspective, it can’t be trusted not to invade as soon as that disarmament is complete). Trump’s bromance with Kim is unlikely to break this deadlock; in international relations, interests almost always trump affinities.
As far as Kim is concerned, things are going about as well as can be expected. His nuclear arsenal is serving its intended purpose as an insurance policy against American and South Korean aggression, China and Russia are helping him get around U.S. sanctions, and South Korea is pursuing its own track of normalization with the North that would weaken the sanctions regime further. And even if Trump is ultimately willing to risk the massive destruction and loss of life a war with North Korea would entail, he is currently too preoccupied with punishing Iran for upholding the agreement it made to punish North Korea for violating one that doesn’t yet exist.