Trump officials urge patience on North Korea

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The Trump administration is urging patience on North Korea amid a flurry of developments this week that appear to offer conflicting portraits of the United States’s diplomatic efforts.

President Trump on Friday lauded the North’s return of service members’ remains from the Korean War, thanking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for “keeping his word.”

The administration also touted the beginning of the destruction of a missile engine testing site as Pyongyang living up to the commitments Kim made at last month’s summit in Singapore.

And while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted to senators this week that North Korea is still producing the material necessary to make nuclear bombs, experts say that is something to be expected — and not necessarily a sign of faltering diplomacy — as bilateral talks develop.{mosads}

“North Korea never pledged to immediately halt all activities,” said Jenny Town, a research analyst and managing director at U.S.-based North Korea monitor 38 North.

“It’s not surprising to see activity continue,” Town said. “Although I would say we would expect the activity to be at low levels and no new projects pursued.”

Since Trump’s summit with Kim in June, several reports have surfaced calling into question Pyongyang’s willingness to surrender its nuclear capabilities.

News reports citing U.S. intelligence have suggested North Korea is working to conceal production facilities, and analyses of satellite imagery have shown continued expansion of nuclear and missile facilities.

Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang earlier this month — his third to the city — also appeared to produce little progress for the administration, with Kim not meeting with him during the visit.

More positive headlines came this week, with 38 North releasing satellite imagery showing that North Korea has begun dismantling key facilities at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station.

Kim verbally agreed in Singapore to destroy the site, but the commitment was not part of the joint statement that he and Trump released at their meeting.

On Thursday night, the White House also announced that 55 caskets carrying Korean War remains believed to be U.S. service members had been returned from North Korea.

The repatriation of remains was one of North Korea’s commitments in the joint statement, and Trump thanked Kim in a tweet and in public remarks at the White House.

“I want to thank Chairman Kim for keeping his word,” Trump told reporters Friday. “We have many others coming, but I want to thank Chairman Kim in front of the media for fulfilling a promise he made to me. And I’m sure he will continue to fulfill that promise as they search and search and search.”

Analysts, too, were encouraged at the “confidence building” measures of returning the remains and appearing to dismantle test sites. They warned, however, that Pyongyang still hasn’t taken any verifiable and irreversible steps to dismantle its nuclear program.

North Korea “needs to take the additional step of halting fissile material production. They could do that very soon,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “That would be an important, dramatic step. That would move along, I think, the peace process.”

Kimball said that “both sides need to be thinking more creatively. Both sides need to not be afraid to take additional steps, otherwise this process is going to bog down.”

The Trump administration has said little about what is going on behind the scenes with respect to negotiations with North Korea.

But senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, getting their first chance to question Pompeo since the summit in Singapore, grilled the secretary of State this week on U.S. progress with North Korea.

Pompeo offered few new details, but did tell Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) that North Korea continues to produce fissile material, which is the fuel for a nuclear weapon.

Town said that the disclosure was on par with what analysts have observed at nuclear sites in North Korea, including one of its premier facilities, Yongbyon.

“In the more recent imagery … it does seem to have at least slowed down,” Town said. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of activity at Yongbyon. It’s not completely quiet, but it seems to have calmed.”

In the same exchange with Markey, Pompeo cited the dismantlement of Sohae as “verifiable” progress.

Asked later by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) whether North Korea is continuing to advance its nuclear program, Pompeo declined to answer in an unclassified setting. But he pointed back to his earlier confirmation that it is still producing fissile material as partly answering the question.

Pompeo also attempted to assuage senators itching for answers, saying North Korea talks are a process of “patient diplomacy.”

“We’re engaged in patient diplomacy,” Pompeo said. “But we will not let this drag out to no end. I emphasized this position in the productive discussions I had with Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol. President Trump remains upbeat about the prospects for North Korean denuclearization. Progress is happening.”

The White House has also offered mixed messages on the threat posed by Pyongyang. Following his summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month, Trump declared on Twitter that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

But less than two weeks later, the president extended the decades-long state of national emergency with respect to North Korea, declaring its nuclear program an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security.

Meanwhile, some experts in Washington remain skeptical about the progress of negotiations, given the history of failed efforts to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

“I think the North Koreans realize that, let’s face it, nuclear weapons are the ultimate insurance policy,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest. “What can replace that? What can give Kim more security than that? If I’m him, I take my chances and keep the nukes.”

Still, Kazianis did not take Pompeo’s confirmation that North Korea is continuing to produce fissile material as a bad sign itself, saying Pyongyang’s nuclear program is on “autopilot” until Kim says otherwise.

“The North Koreans are going to continue building more nuclear weapons, more fissile material,” he said. “They’re going to continue testing using advanced computer modeling and wind tunneling. That is all going to keep going.”

Many have also criticized the communique signed by Trump and Kim for being vague and devoid of any real agreements.

“Really, so far, there has been no evidence that North Korea is actually willing to denuclearize,” said Bruce Klingner, an expert in Korean and Japanese affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“It does seem like we are going through the same iterations of diplomacy as before. Perhaps this time is different, but we have to be skeptical.”

Tags Cory Gardner Donald Trump Ed Markey Mike Pompeo
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