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Did Pyongyang trick Washington?

July 05,2018
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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on his second trip to Pyongyang on May 9. [YONHAP]
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KIM HYUN-KI
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The United States has been aware of a secret North Korean uranium enrichment facility called Kangsong since 2013 and wanted to address it during the summit in Singapore. In pre-meeting negotiations, the United States discussed the issue in depth with North Korea, according to my sources in Washington.

Highly enriched uranium used to make nuclear weapons is far harder to detect than plutonium. That is why the United States is desperately searching for it and North Korea is desperately hiding it. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, wrote in a report that the nuclear facility in Kangsong was built before the one in Yongbyon and is more than twice as big. It is understandable considering the intelligence capacity of the United States and the nuclear ambitions of North Korea.

But questions arise from here. The United States was sure from pre-summit negotiations that North Korea would acknowledge the existence of Kangsong in Singapore and thought it would be part of Kim Jong-un’s drastic decision. However, it didn’t happen. Did Pyongyang trick Washington?

With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set to visit Pyongyang for a third time this week, U.S. media outlets have started reporting on Kangsong. The news wouldn’t be possible if the White House and intelligence agencies intentionally provided tips. Does this mean Washington is putting more pressure on Pyongyang, or have the two sides made an agreement? We have to wait and see.

What’s clear is that North Korea’s acknowledgement of Kangsong and frank reporting of its highly enriched uranium during Pompeo’s visit will be a yardstick for its willingness to denuclearize and determine whether negotiations can continue. If not, the North Korea issue will likely be buried by other events in the United States.

On July 9, U.S. President Donald Trump will choose a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. On July 16, he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for their first summit in Helsinki, Finland.

Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller is closing in on Trump in his Russia investigation. Putin’s testimony of Trump’s innocence is emerging as a far more desperate issue than North Korea’s denuclearization. With slow progress on the Korean front, the issue is quickly being eclipsed by news on immigration, trade wars and midterm elections.

The United States is not rushing denuclearization because, in the worlds of Trump, it’s like “rushing the turkey out of the stove. It’s not going to be as good.” And North Korea is likely to go slow and sidestep by broaching unrelated issues such as the return of fallen U.S. soldiers’ remains from the Korean War. Denuclearization is entering a vacuum, and for South Korea, that is the worst-case scenario.

But South Korea has already suspended its joint military exercises with the United States and paused various development programs for high-tech weapons. Renovations of 90 to 100 bases on the border have been postponed. If inter-Korean relations progress, front-line military facilities will have to adapt, and the demolition will incur additional costs, according to government estimates.

It all sounds absurd. Why is South Korea preparing for arms reduction when there is circumstantial evidence that North Korea is hiding its nuclear weapons and expanding its program, while the United States is caught up on other issues? Without denuclearization, the removal of sanctions, establishment of U.S.-North relations, normalization of inter-Korean relations and discussions of arms reduction are all inconceivable.

I am really curious about what Pompeo will have in his hands when he returns from Pyongyang. But I am more worried about where South Korea’s unrealistic and unlimited hope will lead.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 4, Page 30