Back from his third trip to North Korea in as many months, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounded buoyant.
“President Trump remains upbeat about the prospects for North Korean denuclearization. Progress is happening,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 25. “We need Chairman Kim Jong Un to follow through on his commitments that he made in Singapore.”
Yet in the weeks following President Trump’s June 12 summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, news reports have cited strong indications that North Korea has continued to produce fissile material for making nuclear weapons and build ballistic missiles suited for carrying nuclear warheads.
Is North Korea reneging on its commitments? This fact check examines what Pyongyang committed to, what it did not commit to and whether that nation is sticking to or spurning its pledges.
“Nothing’s changed. Our objective remains the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea as agreed to by Chairman Kim Jong Un.”
–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the July 25 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing
First, one thing that has changed is this: in his call for “final, fully verified denuclearization,” Pompeo dropped the word “irreversible” in his description of the denuclearization the U.S. seeks from North Korea. Pompeo had previously included that word when stating U.S. policy.
Still, at the Senate hearing, when asked by Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner if “the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization by the end of the president’s first term” remains the goal, Pompeo’s response was, “Yes, more quickly, if possible.”
Second, did Kim actually agree, as Pompeo claims, to “the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea?” Nowhere can such a sweeping commitment be found in either of the two documents Kim put his signature on this past spring.
On April 27, Kim signed what’s known as “The Panmunjom Declaration” along with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. In it, Kim commits to a common goal with South Korea of “realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
Longtime North Korea scholar, and frequent visitor to the North, Andrei Lankov tells NPR that North Korea has a very different understanding of “denuclearization” from that of Pompeo.
The North Korean view, he says, is of “a distant future, when U.S. forces are completely withdrawn not necessarily from only the Korean Peninsula, but maybe from the entire East Asia, maybe from the Pacific and what about Hawaii, or what about surrender of U.S. nukes and Russian nukes and Chinese nukes? When that happens, the North Korean government will probably be happy to surrender its nukes as well.”
The June 12 joint declaration signed by Trump and Kim in Singapore essentially restates what Kim committed to in Panmunjom. It declares in its preamble that Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — nary a word about that denuclearization being verifiable or pertaining exclusively to North Korea, as Pompeo had put it — and it goes on to state, once more, that North Korea “commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
“I want to thank Chairman Kim for keeping his word, we have many others coming.”
–President Trump on July 27, the day 55 boxes possibly containing the remains of American troops missing since the Korean War were flown from North Korea to South Korea, en route to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii
True, and yet…
Trump had previously said that North Korea had already fulfilled its stated commitment in the Singapore joint declaration “to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”
Eleven days after the Singapore summit and more than five weeks before the first boxes of possible remains were handed over by North Korea, Trump declared at a rally in Duluth, Minn., “We got back our great, fallen heroes, the remains. In fact today already 200 have been sent back.”
At that point, no remains had been sent back. Trump’s claim that “we have many others coming” was mere conjecture.
The remains of close to 5,000 U.S. soldiers have yet to be recovered from North Korea.
“North Korea continues to produce fissile material, nuclear bomb material.”
–Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey at the July 25 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing
Pompeo confirmed Markey’s assertion. “Yes, they continue to produce fissile material,” Pompeo said, although he declined to answer another query from Markey: whether North Korea continues to pursue building submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
“The United States is tracking the disassembly of a missile engine test site.”
–Secretary of State Pompeo at the July 25 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing
Independent commercial satellite imagery shows the dismantling of parts of the Sohae satellite launching station in mid-July. It had been used to assemble space launch vehicles and develop and test liquid-fuel rocket engines.
Pompeo told the Senate panel that at the Singapore summit, tearing down the missile engine test site was something that “wasn’t in the written agreement itself, but Chairman Kim committed in his conversation with President Trump to do.” To which Pompeo added, “They’re beginning to dismantle that, it has to do with their missile program, it’s a good thing — steps forward.”
One leading expert on North Korea’s missile program agrees.
“Since these facilities are believed to have played an important role in the development of technologies for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program,” says Joseph Bermudez on the website 38 North, “these efforts represent a significant confidence-building measure on the part of North Korea.”
Sen. Markey took a dimmer view of North Korea’s fulfillment of Kim’s pledge made orally to Trump in Singapore.
“It’s clear to everyone,” he told Pompeo at the July 25 hearing, “that North Korea’s dismantling of an outdated missile test facility, as well as a previously dismantled ICBM assembly building — which can be rebuilt within three days — are empty gestures, and not indicative that North Korea has changed its tune.”
“There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”
–President Trump in a tweet, arriving in Washington the morning after the Singapore summit
Trump appeared to be basing his claim on having just shaken hands and co-signed a document with a man he had never met before.
In fact, North Korea to this day is seen by experts as possessing dozens of nuclear weapons (estimates range from 30 to 60) with a capacity to build a dozen more annually.
As noted above, North Korea appears to be building more long-range ballistic missiles even as it dismantles the Sohae station. It also appears to continue to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons. North Korea has made no explicit commitments to suspend either of those activities.
Whether Pyongyang would ever threaten again to use such weapons against the U.S., as it has done in the past, is simply not possible to say with certitude.