The past 72 hours in surprising North Korea news, explained

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A possible US-North Korea agreement on nuclear weapons. A historic demolition in North Korea. And a top US official possibly signaling a change in Washington’s stance toward Pyongyang. Yup, it was that kind of weekend in North Korea news.

On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington and Pyongyang are in “complete agreement about what the ultimate objectives are” for the June 12 summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in Singapore. If true, that would prove a significant step toward a possible nuclear deal next month.

The following day, North Korea set a time frame for the dismantling of its most prominent nuclear test site. That could prove a big concession by Kim — or a dramatic empty gesture, as the site may be unusable anyway.

And on Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Pompeo went on multiple news shows to discuss the administration’s approach to North Korea. There’s just one problem: It looked like Pompeo offered a different narrative from the administration’s stance about what the US and North Korea may agree to.

What follows is a brief guide to the past three days and what they tell us about the state of US-North Korea relations as the Trump-Kim summit fast approaches.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang last week. He says both countries are in “complete agreement” ahead of Kim’s summit with President Trump.
The White House via Getty Images

According to Pompeo last Friday, the US and North Korea are on the same page heading into the Trump-Kim summit.

Pompeo, speaking at a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha in Washington, said his talks with Kim last week were “warm” and “substantive” and that both countries “have a shared vision for what we hope, when this process is completed, the Korean Peninsula looks like.”

But, he added, any agreement with Pyongyang must have a “robust verification program” to ensure that North Korea is serious about dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

Although Pyongyang has expressed its willingness to “denuclearize” — something President Trump tweeted about enthusiastically back in late April — experts have warned that Washington and Pyongyang may actually be talking about two very different things when they use that word.

North Korea has consistently stated that it would be willing to give up its nuclear weapons — but only if the US withdraws the 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea. That’s not the vision of denuclearization that the US and South Korea have. They just want North Korea to dismantle its entire nuclear program. Period. Last month, Trump said denuclearization to him “means they [North Korea] get rid of their nukes — very simple.”

But if the two sides have truly come to an understanding of what the other side is asking for and offering in return, that’s a major step forward.

Pompeo also seemed to suggest that they had begun to move to the next phase of negotiations, saying that during his talks, he and Kim “began to work through the modalities, how we would achieve that” shared vision.

Trump and Kim will likely work on finalizing some of those specific when they chat in Singapore next month.

An “artificial earthquake” appeared near the Punggye-ri site in January 2015. North Korea vowed to destroy that complex between May 23 and 25.

An “artificial earthquake” appeared near the Punggye-ri site in January 2015. North Korea vowed to destroy that complex between May 23 and 25.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

North Korea (sort of) invites you to witness something truly historic.

The country announced that between May 23 and 25, it will destroy the Punggye-ri complex where the country has conducted all six of its nuclear tests. But Kim doesn’t want the world to take his word for it. Instead, North Korea is inviting foreign journalists — including some from the United States — to watch.

Here’s what will happen: “Dismantlement of the nuclear test ground will be done in the following sequence — making all tunnels of the test ground collapse by explosion; completely blocking entries; removing all observation facilities, research institutes and structures of guard units on the ground,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. All staff, including research scientists, also will be removed indefinitely from the premises.

The announcement was not a huge surprise. Kim committed to closing the site during his historic summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month, and hinted that he’d invite reporters. North Korea has even started to bring down some buildings at the site, according to nuclear experts Jeffrey Lewis and David Schmerler. So make no mistake: It’s significant for Kim to commit to dismantling the site just a few weeks before his talks with Trump.

But there’s a catch. For one, the site has suffered extensive damage in part due to the number and growing size of its nuclear tests. Parts of the complex have caved in, according to researchers, rendering it effectively unusable. In other words, North Korea’s “concession” may not be much of a gift after all.

Lewis and Schmerler also point out that Kim might be building more intercontinental ballistic missiles at Pyongsong, another nuclear development site. Kim promised back in April to stop testing those missiles without warning but never said he’d stop producing them, they note. That means Kim could be satisfied that he has the bomb he wants and will now make more missiles capable of carrying those bombs to faraway targets like the United States.

Finally, North Korea has put on a show like this before. In 2008, the country publicly destroyed its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. The reactor helped North Korea create plutonium, an important ingredient for nuclear bombs.

Americans seemed excited by the move. “This is a very significant disablement step,” Sung Kim, America’s envoy to North Korea at the time, told CNN. “There was a moment of stunned silence as the magnitude of what had happened sunk in,” CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who was there to witness the event, said.

But North Korea continued to produce nuclear bombs and missiles to carry them around the world, and reneged on deals with the United States and others to dismantle its nuclear program.

So even if Pyongyang destroys the Punggye-ri nuclear site, it won’t mean the country has ended its nuclear program.

National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on television on May 9, 2018. Since taking the job in April, he has appeared on television often to discuss the administration’s national security positions, especially on North Korea and Iran.

National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on television on May 9, 2018. Since taking the job in April, he has appeared on television often to discuss the administration’s national security positions, especially on North Korea and Iran.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Pompeo and Bolton went on the Sunday news shows to clarify the Trump administration’s stance on North Korea. Only one of them succeeded.

Both officials said that Trump will push for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” which basically means North Korea can’t have nuclear weapons and must allow inspectors to certify that Pyongyang can’t make new ones. Bolton added that that was the only way Kim could ensure his country becomes a “normal nation.”

“[I]f he wants to have normal relations with the rest of the world, if he wants trade and investment to be possible for his desperately poor country, this is the path to do it,” the national security adviser told Martha Raddatz on This Week.

So that’s settled, right? America’s position is North Korea ends its nuclear program, and then the US and others welcome the country into the community of nations.

Well, not exactly.

Pompeo appeared to move the goalposts in two separate appearances on Sunday. On Fox News Sunday, the secretary of state said that “America’s interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into LA or Denver or into the very place we’re sitting here this morning. … That’s our objective; that’s the end state the president has laid out.”

Read that again carefully: Pompeo said the administration wants to ensure Kim can’t hit America with a nuclear bomb. That’s much different from saying Trump wants to stop North Korea from having — or even using — nuclear weapons altogether.

That’s not all. Here’s what Pompeo said on CBS’s Face the Nation:

The president has a commitment. And he will make this commitment to Chairman Kim, I am confident, that says, if you do the things we need to do so that America is no longer held at risk by your nuclear weapons arsenal, and that you get rid of your CBW [chemical and biological weapons] program and missiles that threaten the world, we will ensure that your people have the opportunity for the greatness that I know Chairman Kim wants them to have.

That gave a little more insight into the administration’s thinking. The US wants out of North Korea’s nuclear-tipped missile range, and it also wants Pyongyang to remove its chemical and biological weapons from the country. If that happens, per Pompeo, Washington may start to lift sanctions on Pyongyang.

But again, that’s not the same as “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” It’s a much less significant step, which means either Pompeo knows the limits of what both sides might agree to or he’s tipped his hand that Trump will accept a much less stringent agreement.

Of course, it’s possible that Pompeo misspoke. But if he went on the Sunday shows to provide more clarity as to the White House’s thinking on North Korea, he failed.

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