WATCH: President Trump speaks with China’s President Xi Jinping during an Oval Office meeting at the White House on Thursday. The two leaders are discussing trade and the denuclearization of North Korea. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Given that North Korea has confirmed that Kim Jong Un has established diplomatic relations with Washington (in exchange for a path of closer engagement with the United States), that he is tearing down nukes and missiles of a serviceable or usable range, and that the country is inching toward building living quarters for its army by the end of 2019, what’s keeping the two leaders from making even more progress toward implementing the agreements that were hammered out in Singapore? The answer is likely not the lack of equipment. While North Korea does not yet have the ability to sell missiles on the world market, it does supply raw materials and equipment that can be incorporated into anything. Singapore and China appear to have supplied North Korea with missile parts, some of them new, others that were newly made and reassembled after they were delivered, some of which were several years old. Given that North Korea’s nuclear materials were already finished, those undamaged parts would have little value to the North Koreans but could be useful to any of the world’s other nations whose nukes and missiles are built and serviced by North Korea. In a sense, North Korea’s ship has been already built; it may take just a few more months to put the two sides back together.
The answer is likely not the lack of equipment. While North Korea does not yet have the ability to sell missiles on the world market, it does supply raw materials and equipment that can be incorporated into anything.
Ongoing tensions could well result in an armed showdown. Although Western and South Korean negotiators assume that the incoming Trump administration will not come to the region just to restore the de facto partitioning line that existed during the Korean War, as it did after the first and second North Korean nuclear tests in the 1970s, they should prepare for the possibility that the United States and South Korea would enter into a more robust role. If that happened, the other signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, would have to follow suit. Signing up with the nuclear-armed nations of the West would force signatories such as China and Russia to decide whether the rapid growth of their economic power interests them in expanding their nuclear arsenals to compete with the West. Today, several signatories are trying to settle into the coveted position of emerging economic power, but they may not have time to make their decisions on nuclear disarmament. If they are tied to developing nuclear weapons, the United States and South Korea may decide that they are already in a position to impose massive costs on China and Russia that would place them outside the economic growth equation.