North Korea has a history of attempting to exploit ambiguities in U.S. positions and loopholes in verification to advance its nuclear weapons programs. Achieving a mutually-acceptable definition of key terms like “denuclearization” is the primary challenge of negotiating with North Korea. Prominent statements from Trump officials that offer contradictory definitions of denuclearization threaten negotiations before they have formally begun.
President Trump’s aspirational but vague definition—“it means getting rid of their nukes”—highlights the challenge his administration has had in grasping the complexity of a disarmament agreement and articulating a consistent message about U.S. objectives in advance of talks. Advance messaging is important for firmly setting expectations and denying Pyongyang maneuvering space in the negotiating process.
Over the past two months, U.S. officials have generally coalesced around a maximalist position: the United States will insist North Korea eliminate its nuclear warheads, fissile material stocks, and the technology to produce them; some portion of their ballistic missile forces; and chemical and biological weapons programs.
However, in attempting to describe this position, officials have delivered a series of vague statements that seem to contradict one another. Some, if read closely, could permit North Korea to retain some of these capabilities.
In general, administration officials are unclear about how much of Pyongyang’s missile force could be allowed to remain and inconsistent about stating that chemical and biological weapons programs must be eliminated. Statements that seem to allow retention of nuclear warheads are particularly surprising but are probably unintended.
Over the past two months, U.S. officials have generally coalesced around a maximalist position
The most common position is to demand “CVID,” a slogan used by the Obama and George W. Bush administrations as a shorthand for complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of nuclear warheads and all civil and military nuclear programs. Similar language appears in UN Security Council Resolution 1718, passed after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.
At his swearing-in address, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo introduced a variation on this standard, committing to “permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program, and to do so without delay.” Read strictly, PVID is a lower bar than CVID because “irreversible” already implies permanence, while Pompeo’s variation drops the demand for completeness.
These kinds of nuances simply underscore the insufficiency of using slogans as policy positions. Journalists and allies looking for clarity would be better served by asking about specific measures. When faced with direct questions, administration officials’ responses are clearly improved, though usually imprecise, and sometimes contradictory.
In a televised interview on April 22, White House Director of Legislative Affairs Mark Short said in response to a question about what denuclearization means to the president: “I think from our perspective, it means full denuclearization. No longer having nuclear weapons that can be used in warfare against any of our allies.” The first sentence conveys a stricter standard than the second, which could allow Pyongyang to retain warheads and devices provided they were rendered undeliverable, as well as fissile material, intact nuclear facilities, missiles, and CBW.
On April 24, when a journalist asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders what the president’s definition of denuclearization is she responded, “it means that North Korea doesn’t have and isn’t testing nuclear missiles.” Like Short’s definition, Sanders’ could permit the retention of warheads and devices rendered undeliverable, as well as conventional missiles of all ranges, fissile material, intact nuclear facilities, conventional missiles, and CBW.
National Security Advisor John Bolton expresses a maximalist negotiating position, invoking the “CVID” slogan as a negotiating position. In an interview with ABC News on May 13 he said, “I think the implementation of the decision means getting rid of all the nuclear weapons, dismantling them, taking them to Oakridge, Tennessee. It means getting rid of the uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities. It means addressing the ballistic missile issue.”
Speaking to CNN on the same day he suggested that the United States “look into their chemical and biological weapons as well.” Bolton has conceded, “…nobody believes that this is easy to do,” but the demanding standard he advocates leads some analysts to worry that Bolton is trying to “foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste in negotiations,” a statement he made in March before assuming office.
Over the past month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has appeared to contradict himself at times in his remarks on negotiations with North Korea. On May 2 he said, “We are committed to the permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program and to do so without delay.” This standard would presumably remove all nuclear and CBW, material, and facilities, and could allow North Korea to possess conventional weapons of all ranges.
Pompeo’s remarks in a televised interview on May 13 made several points about U.S. objectives that seem incongruent. On CBS’s Face the Nation he said, “Our ask is complete and total denuclearization of North Korea,” including, when prompted by the host, computer modeling, getting rid of centrifuges, stopping all enrichment, and having inspectors on the ground to verify an agreement.
Yet later in the interview, Pompeo said the objective is to ensure that “America is no longer held at risk by your nuclear weapons arsenal and that you get rid of your CBW program and missiles that threaten the world.” In another interview on the same day he said, “America’s interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into L.A. or Denver.”
These latter formulations may be particularly alarming to U.S. allies as they suggest the United States may accept an agreement designed to eliminate systems that threaten the homeland while leaving intact those that threaten allied territory. If North Korea’s leadership comes to believe that this is the U.S. objective in negotiations, it may press harder to retain intermediate-, medium-, and short-range ballistic missiles.
Furthermore, it may understand these statements as evidence of a weakening commitment to allied security and attempt to use negotiations as a means of dividing these alliances.
These statements led prominent Politico journalist Blake Hounshell to tweet, “Woah-goalposts moved. Kim gets to keep his nukes?” Washington Post reporter Aaron Blake asked, “Is Mike Pompeo backing off Trump’s demand that North Korea get rid of its nukes?” In the context of the rest of his remarks it appears that Pompeo’s standard is not so relaxed. However, this does not eliminate the risk that Pyongyang and U.S. allies scrutinizing officials’ statements could draw this interpretation, or the consequences if they do so.
All this lends credence to the statement Pompeo made on May 11 while appearing for a press availability with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. Asked how to define denuclearization, Pompeo said, “I’m not sure how to define it fully.”
It is unrealistic to expect the United States to publicly spell out a complete schedule to dismantle North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs, and indeed, that would not be an effective negotiating strategy.
But we might expect another administration in this position to say something along the lines of: “North Korea must completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile programs. We are negotiating specific verification measures and timetables.”
The administration that has failed to overcome the mixed messaging that marked its early efforts on North Korea and undermined its credibility
The period leading up to the Trump-Kim summit is an important opportunity for the administration to set expectations and standards for its talks with North Korea. The absence of cohesion on the definition of denuclearization will confuse allies, while Pyongyang is likely to exploit U.S. ambiguity to insist on a weaker standard for disarmament.
At worst, ambiguity could lead to a weak and unsustainable agreement that allows the White House to claim a win for political purposes without addressing U.S. or allied security concerns. Achieving a common understanding of “denuclearization” between the United States, its allies, and North Korea is a high enough hurdle for the summit to clear; the Trump administration has not helped matters by adding further ambiguity.
Officials’ statements reveal an administration that has failed to overcome the mixed messaging that marked its early efforts on North Korea and undermined its credibility. Moreover, attempts to define denuclearization over the past months have not converged over time. Administration officials appear to be improvising public statements rather than relying on a common message.
This raises serious concerns about the administration’s preparation for a summit. The lack of a consistent plan only exacerbates the risk that an impulsive president will improvise his negotiating position with Kim Jong Un.
Even though North Korea remains unlikely to fully and verifiably eliminate its nuclear, missile, chemical, or biological programs in the foreseeable future, the Trump-Kim summit remains a critical opportunity to limit the threat North Korea poses to the United States and its allies.
By this standard, early indications are not encouraging. Preparation, consistency, and effective negotiation is necessary to maximize U.S. leverage and make the most of this opportunity.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
North Korea has a history of attempting to exploit ambiguities in U.S. positions and loopholes in verification to advance its nuclear weapons programs. Achieving a mutually-acceptable definition of key terms like “denuclearization” is the primary challenge of negotiating with North Korea. Prominent statements from Trump officials that offer contradictory definitions of denuclearization
Abigail Stowe-Thurston is a program coordinator at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Previously, she was a research assistant for the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
Abigail Stowe-Thurston is a research assistant for the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Previously, she was a fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, where she lobbied on nuclear weapons policy and Pentagon spending. Adam Mount is senior fellow and director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Previously, he was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its Independent Task Force on North Korea.