The United States is trying again to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.
A senior U.S. official tells NPR that U.S. diplomats are communicating with the reclusive regime. They are passing messages through North Korea’s mission to the United Nations in New York.
The goal is a new round of “working-level” talks between experts from the two nations. President Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong Un agreed to make such an effort during their dramatic meeting in June at the fortified boundary between North and South Korea.
But the effort has begun slowly, and a question hangs over the initiative. After multiple frustrations, U.S. strategists are asking if Kim Jong Un is capable of making the nuclear deal the Trump administration wants.
It’s significant if the U.S. concludes Kim can’t make a deal, since the U.S. has tried so hard to appeal directly to him. President Trump has now met Kim three times, exchanged letters with him, and even declared that they “fell in love.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has visited the North Korean leader in Pyongyang.
“The president still has faith” that Kim can be an effective negotiating partner, said one person closely familiar with U.S. deliberations. The person asked not to be identified citing the sensitivity of the matter.
But elsewhere within the U.S. government, there is a widespread “loss of faith.” The source said U.S. strategists are baffled that the North Korean ruler has seemed unable to spur his country to keep what they see as his commitments.
At a summit in Singapore in June 2018, Trump and Kim committed to “work toward” denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But U.S. diplomats grew frustrated as they tried to realize that goal. Pompeo left an October 2018 meeting with Kim believing he would allow inspectors to see a North Korean nuclear test site. But months passed and the inspectors never entered.
A second summit in Hanoi in early 2019 fell apart after Kim advanced a proposal to close one of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, but resisted broader U.S. demands.
The third meeting between the two leaders, at the fortified border between North and South Korea last month, produced a promise to start working-level negotiations within two to three weeks. But four weeks have passed, and talks have not begun. A senior U.S. official says North Korea has yet to name a lead negotiator.
Although the workings of North Korea’s government are unusually opaque, three analysts told NPR that Kim does face certain political limits. While he has no meaningful political opposition, he does want to ensure the stability of his regime.
Kim Jong Un “is the decision maker,” said Jenny Town of the journal 38 North, which analyzed North Korea for the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research center in Washington. “He is able to make” decisions about the nuclear program, said Town, “but it doesn’t come without consequences. And I think this is a bit underappreciated that there are different constituencies within North Korea that he does also have to answer to at some point.”
Kim has purged the ranks of both the ruling Communist Party and the North Korean military since taking power in 2011. Yet the elites around Kim and in the military may have their own views. In recent months, North Korea’s state-run press has revealed signs of disagreement with nuclear diplomacy.
“There seems to be a very subtle debate going on,” said Town, citing articles in North Korean press “that are really questioning the value of why are we giving away our nuclear deterrent, why are we working with these capitalists?” Other articles have pushed back, stressing “the value of diplomacy.”
Kim himself has expressed skepticism. In a speech in April, he said President Trump “continuously observes” that the two leaders are friendly. But Kim added that the U.S. is making one-sided demands and using the wrong “political calculations.”
Analysts say Kim’s own political calculations have made it hard to give up nuclear weapons.
Jean Lee, a former Associated Press correspondent who spent much time in Pyongyang, said North Korea’s propaganda described the nuclear program as “the one thing that he has told his people is protecting them from a foreign invasion.”
Giving up the nuclear program would undermine Kim’s legitimacy as a ruler, said Ken Gause, who studies the North Korean leadership for CNA, a research group based in Arlington, Va.
“I think he can dismantle parts of the program,” Gause said, but only in ways that are “not verifiable and not irreversible,” and “probably not near as much as we would want.”
To accept even a partial dismantling, Kim would need concessions from the United States, such as the lifting of economic sanctions against North Korea. “Kim is not moving an iota unless the U.S. put stuff on the table,” said Gause, “which means money going into the pockets of the elite because that’s the people he has to satisfy.”
The U.S. has held out the possibility of sanctions relief, but says North Korea must irreversibly give up its weapons program first.
Gause is among those who think a step-by-step agreement is still possible: First one side gives a little, then the other does. But the Trump administration opposes that incremental approach, fearing North Korea would never finish. This leaves diplomats still searching for a formula that gives the U.S. what it wants — while giving North Korea’s power structure what it needs.