“For the North Koreans, the principle of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula does not mean unilateral disarmament,” said Joshua Pollack, the editor of the Nonproliferation Review, and a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “They couch it in terms of global disarmament.”
In doing so, Pollack noted, the North Korean regime copied the language used by Beijing when China announced its own moratorium on nuclear testing in 1996, making it harder for the Chinese government to push Pyongyang to go further.
“This weekend and today there is a scramble in the White House as they read this document and it sinks in that denuclearisation is not all they thought it was,” he said.
US officials, including the new national security adviser, John Bolton, have said in the past that the US would demand complete and rapid North Korean disarmament at the summit. But on Monday, the White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, would not be pinned down on US goals.
Asked several times what Trump understood by the term ‘denuclearisation’ Sanders avoided a definition.
“I’m going to leave that to the President and Kim Jong-un to walk through what some of those details would look like when that meeting takes place,” Sanders said.
Trump has said that his summit with Kim, if it happens, will take place in early June or slightly earlier. Before that, Kim is due to meet the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, where the two leaders are expecting to discuss a formal end to the Korean war. Formally speaking, a peace treaty should involve the US-led United Nations alliance that signed the 1953 armistice that stopped the fighting, but South Korea could pursue a separate agreement, resetting their bilateral relations.
Experts said that the North Korean leader could be deftly manoeuvring Trump into a trap. The White House has said it would maintain its policy of “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang until it disarms completely, but such pressure will be hard to maintain without Chinese and South Korean support, and Beijing and Seoul are more ready to settle for a testing moratorium in return for sanctions relief, a “freeze-for-freeze”.
The Trump administration has previously rejected such a partial deal, but in its desire to claim a diplomatic victory, it might have to settle for far less than it had hoped from the summit with Kim.
“The Trump team are looking to post a win,” Rapp-Hooper said. “So they may be willing to move the goalposts backwards to declare a win, and define down the objectives.”