US and North Korean expectations for a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un appear set on a collision course after the North Korean leader pledged to keep his country’s nuclear arsenal for generations.
Over the weekend, Trump celebrated the North Korean announcement that it would suspend nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing, closing down its nuclear test site, as a big diplomatic victory.
“Wow, we haven’t given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!” the president wrote on Twitter.
The defence secretary, James Mattis, also presented the testing moratorium as a sign that more North Korean concessions could be forthcoming at a summit.
“Right now, I think there’s a lot of reasons for optimism that the negotiations will be fruitful and we’ll see,” Mattis told reporters on Monday.
But it became increasingly evident over the weekend that the US and North Korea interpretations of ‘denuclearisation’ were worlds apart.
In the same report on Friday to the Workers Party of Korea in which he declared a halt to nuclear and ICBM testing, Kim Jong-un made clear that such steps were possible because his regime had completed work on building a viable nuclear deterrent.
According to the official account of the party plenary, Kim said that such testing was no longer necessary “given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was finished as the whole processes of developing nuclear weapons were carried out in a scientific way and in regular sequence”.
He said the North Korean arsenal, which called a “powerful treasured sword for defending peace”, was an insurance policy for future generations: “a firm guarantee by which our descendants can enjoy the most dignified and happiest life in the world was provided.”
Kim presented the moratorium on testing as contributions of a “world-level” power towards the global goal of a future free of nuclear weapons.
“It can be tempting to see the North Korean announcement over the weekend as preemptive concession,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Centre at Yale Law School. “But you can also look at it as a unilateral assertion coming from a position of strength.”