President Reagan often said that our approach to relations with the Soviet Union should be “trust, but verify.” He understood that because they would cheat on any arms control agreement we made with them, every such agreement had to require periodic proofs of Soviet compliance.
As President Trump’s summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un approaches, he knows that North Korea has reneged on or flatly renounced every agreement it has made. Its track record is even worse than the Soviets’. That fact will require Mr. Trump to modify Mr. Reagan’s approach to say “verify, but don’t trust.”
Last week, when he revoked the Obama-Iran nuclear weapons deal, Mr. Trump strengthened his hand on North Korea significantly by making it clear to the world — and especially Mr. Kim — that he won’t agree to another bad deal.
The summit comes after a year of the most dangerous relations between the two nations since the Korean War. On eight occasions in 2017, North Korea launched tests of its ballistic missiles and, in September, detonated what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb. Threats came in abundance from Mr. Kim, including a threat to ring the U.S. territory of Guam with fire and his claim that the entire U.S. mainland was within range of his nuclear arsenal.
Mr. Kim evidently wasn’t convinced. He continued missile tests and detonated the purported hydrogen weapon in September. He boasted that further tests were unnecessary because the nuclear weapons were ready for large-scale production.
That’s almost certainly a lie for many reasons, not the least of which is that, according to Chinese engineers, the mountain under which the test site is located has partly collapsed precluding further tests.
Since February, the Kim regime has been on a charm offensive beginning with its stage-crafted appearance at the South Korean Olympic Games. It continued in Mr. Kim’s meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the release of three American hostages the day after Mr. Trump’s cancellation of the Iran deal.
Mr. Kim has agreed to halt nuclear tests and tests of long-range missiles, and promised that North Korea’s nuclear weapons technology wouldn’t be shared with any other nation “under any circumstances.” He and Mr. Moon signed a mutual declaration stating a common goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Mr. Kim’s promise to not proliferate nuclear weapons technology is an important falsehood. North Korea is in partnership with Iran to develop both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. It will sell its nuclear and missile know-how to any nation for hard cash.
Occasionally, the smiley-face mask slips. It did on May 6 when a North Korean Foreign Ministry official said that the U.S. was using “pressure and military threats” against his nation and provoking it by declaring that no sanctions will be lifted until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons.
The agenda for the summit is still unsettled. On May 3, The New York Times published a story claiming that Mr. Trump had ordered the Pentagon to prepare options for reducing in number the 28,500 troops we have in South Korea. That report was quickly labeled “nonsense” by National Security Adviser John Bolton. The president said troop reductions were not on the table but hinted, unwisely, that they could be in the future.
Mr. Bolton, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all understand that one of the greatest defects in former President Obama’s nuclear weapons agreement with Iran is its failure to include a sufficiently robust inspection regime to ensure Iran’s compliance.
Mr. Trump has said that he’d walk out of the summit if the talks weren’t “fruitful.” He may have to because North Korea will not — and cannot — agree to verifiable nuclear or ballistic missile disarmament.
Mr. Kim can’t agree to the kind of inspections that would make a deal worthwhile because such inspections would reveal Iran’s and China’s involvement in his nation’s missile and nuclear weapon programs.
Whatever else may be on the summit’s agenda, North Korea’s nuclear and missile disarmament is the only issue that matters enough for us to make any concessions to the Kim regime. Nothing other than North Korea’s nuclear and missile disarmament can achieve any gain to our national security, South Korea’s or Japan’s.
There are other actions by North Korea that could help defuse the situation but not resolve it. Were it to dismantle the thousands of artillery emplacements in position to shell Seoul in the first minutes of a war or were it to do the same for its submarine-launched ballistic missile capability, both actions would lessen the tension between the three nations. It is highly unlikely to do either.
Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim will both want to settle other issues before those can be dealt with, but that is the point at which Mr. Trump should insist on resolving the nuclear and missile problems before anything else is discussed.
Verification of North Korean actions to dismantle their nuclear and missile programs must be accomplished before any trust can be built. Verify, but don’t trust.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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