The United States is trying again to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.
A senior U.S. official tells NPR that U.S. diplomats are communicating with the reclusive regime. They are passing messages through North Korea's mission to the United Nations in New York.
The goal is a new round of "working-level" talks between experts from the two nations. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to make such an effort during their dramatic meeting in June at the fortified boundary between North and South Korea.
But the effort has begun slowly, and a question hangs over the initiative. After multiple frustrations, U.S. strategists are asking if Kim Jong Un is capable of making the nuclear deal the Trump administration wants.
It's significant if the U.S. concludes Kim can't make a deal, since the U.S. has tried so hard to appeal directly to him. President Trump has now met Kim three times, exchanged letters with him and even declared that they "fell in love." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has visited the North Korean leader in Pyongyang.
"The president still has faith" that Kim can be an effective negotiating partner, said one person closely familiar with U.S. deliberations. The person asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
But elsewhere within the U.S. government, there is a widespread "loss of faith." The source said U.S. strategists are baffled that the North Korean ruler has seemed unable to spur his country to keep what they see as his commitments.
At a summit in Singapore in June 2018, Trump and Kim committed to "work toward" denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But U.S. diplomats grew frustrated as they tried to realize that goal. Pompeo left an October 2018 meeting with Kim believing he would allow inspectors to see a North Korean nuclear test site. But months passed and the inspectors never entered.
A second summit in Hanoi in early 2019 fell apart after Kim advanced a proposal to close one of North Korea's nuclear facilities, but resisted broader U.S. demands.
The third meeting between the two leaders, at the fortified border between North and South Korea last month, produced a promise to start working-level negotiations within two to three weeks. But four weeks have passed, and talks have not begun. A senior U.S. official says North Korea has yet to name a lead negotiator.
Although the workings of North Korea's government are unusually opaque, three analysts told NPR that Kim does face certain political limits. While he has no meaningful political opposition, he does want to ensure the stability of his regime.
Kim Jong Un "is the decision-maker," said Jenny Town of the journal 38 North, which analyzed North Korea for the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research center in Washington. "He is able to make" decisions about the nuclear program, said Town, "but it doesn't come without consequences. And I think this is a bit underappreciated that there are different constituencies within North Korea that he does also have to answer to at some point."
Kim has purged the ranks of both the ruling Communist Party and the North Korean military since taking power in 2011. Yet the elites around Kim and in the military may have their own views. In recent months, North Korea's state-run press has revealed signs of disagreement with nuclear diplomacy.
"There seems to be a very subtle debate going on," said Town, citing articles in North Korean press "that are really questioning the value of why are we giving away our nuclear deterrent, why are we working with these capitalists?" Other articles have pushed back, stressing "the value of diplomacy."
Kim has expressed skepticism. In a speech in April, he said President Trump "continuously observes" that the two leaders are friendly. But Kim added that the U.S. is making one-sided demands and using the wrong "political calculations."
Analysts say Kim's own political calculations have made it hard to give up nuclear weapons.
Jean Lee, a former Associated Press correspondent who spent much time in Pyongyang, said North Korea's propaganda described the nuclear program as "the one thing that he has told his people is protecting them from a foreign invasion."
Giving up the nuclear program would undermine Kim's legitimacy as a ruler, said Ken Gause, who studies the North Korean leadership for CNA, a research group based in Arlington, Va.
"I think he can dismantle parts of the program," Gause said, but only in ways that are "not verifiable and not irreversible," and "probably not near as much as we would want."
To accept even a partial dismantling, Kim would need concessions from the United States, such as the lifting of economic sanctions against North Korea. "Kim is not moving an iota unless the U.S. put stuff on the table," said Gause, "which means money going into the pockets of the elite because that's the people he has to satisfy."
The U.S. has held out the possibility of sanctions relief, but says North Korea must irreversibly give up its weapons program first.
Gause is among those who think a step-by-step agreement is still possible: First one side gives a little, then the other does. But the Trump administration opposes that incremental approach, fearing North Korea would never finish. This leaves diplomats still searching for a formula that gives the U.S. what it wants — while giving North Korea's power structure what it needs.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. is trying again to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Diplomats are communicating with the reclusive regime. A senior U.S. official says they're sending messages through North Korea's mission to the United Nations. The U.S. hopes to schedule new talks after previous frustrations. But even as they try, U.S. strategists are privately posing a hard question.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's a question about North Korea's leader. Is it possible that Kim Jong Un cannot make the deal the U.S. wants? He is an absolute ruler but has not moved far toward U.S. demands. It's a big deal if he cannot make an agreement, since the U.S. has tried so hard to appeal to him. Three times, President Trump has approached North Korea by going straight to the top.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to thank Chairman Kim for taking the first bold step toward a bright new future for his people.
INSKEEP: The first bold step was a summit in Singapore, the first-ever meeting between the two countries' presidents. Trump and Kim agreed to work toward denuclearization, but little happened. Kim eventually agreed to let inspectors see a nuclear test site, but inspectors never got in. So President Trump went to the top again. He tried a second summit in Hanoi, which National Security Adviser John Bolton described this way.
JOHN BOLTON: This is one more chance for Kim Jong Un, who is the only decision-maker that matters in the North Korean system, to deliver on what he said in Singapore.
INSKEEP: In Hanoi, Kim made an offer far short of giving up his weapons, and the summit ended early. Later, President Trump went to the top a third time, meeting Kim last month at the fortified border between the Koreas.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: We've developed a great relationship. I really think that...
INSKEEP: They promised to restart lower-level negotiations in two to three weeks. Four weeks later, the talks have not begun. A U.S. official says North Korea has not even named a lead negotiator. A person familiar with the U.S. diplomatic effort tells NPR that President Trump still has faith that Kim can give up nuclear weapons. But elsewhere in the government, the source describes widespread loss of faith in Kim. We called analysts who studied Kim. Jenny Town works for 38 North, a project named after the 38th parallel that roughly divides the two Koreas.
Is Kim Jong Un fully able to make any deal that he thinks is right with the United States?
JENNY TOWN: He is the decision-maker, and he is able to make those decisions, but it doesn't come without consequences. And I think this is a bit underappreciated, that there is different constituencies within North Korea that he does also have to answer to at some point.
INSKEEP: To keep his regime stable, Kim needs the elite figures who surround him to be confident in his chosen course.
TOWN: But also especially the military. And you've seen over the past, since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, a real shift in power away from the military back towards the party and trying to re-energize the party and really re-empower the party over the military. And I think this has been a big source of tensions among some of the elites and some of the old guard as to trying to really come to terms with this shifting dynamic.
INSKEEP: Now comes the added pressure of negotiation with the outside world. Readers of North Korea's state-run press see hints of disagreement.
TOWN: There seems to be a very subtle debate going on. We've seen it in state media of some of these loyalists that are really questioning the value of, why are we giving away our nuclear deterrent? Why are we, you know, working with these capitalists? Especially since they haven't seen results from the negotiations. And I think the regime, I think, is trying to show the value of diplomacy and improving foreign relations.
INSKEEP: Are you telling me that in this unfree country, where saying the wrong thing can get you killed, that in the state media, there have been articles written by people that appear in subtle ways to question the course of the government toward diplomacy?
TOWN: Yes. There absolutely has been. They might pose a question as to, you know, what is the value of this, and is this really the right path.
INSKEEP: Kim Jong Un himself has expressed skepticism. He referred to the U.S. in a speech in April. He said President Trump, quote, "continuously observes that the two presidents are friendly. But," he says, "the U.S. is making one-sided demands based on poor political calculations." Analysts say Kim's own political calculations make it hard to give up nuclear weapons.
JEAN LEE: This is a leader who is looking out for a better quality of life for his people with him on top as leader. And that adds a whole other element to the negotiation.
INSKEEP: Jean Lee spoke with us from Seoul. She is a former AP journalist who spent much time in Pyongyang hearing propaganda that Kim used to maintain public support.
LEE: And he sees the nuclear weapon, and they call it their treasured sword. He sees it as being the one thing that he has told his people is protecting them from a foreign invasion.
INSKEEP: And Ken Gause suspects he won't give it up. Gause studies North Korea's leadership for CNA, a research institute linked with the U.S. government. He's thinking about the people's basic acceptance of Kim's rule.
Where does his legitimacy come from?
KEN GAUSE: Well, as a third-generation leader, his legitimacy partly comes from the family. But it also increasingly - more so than his father and grandfather - comes from the ability to show himself as an effective leader. And that means in terms of policy.
INSKEEP: He needs to show achievements. And since his success in improving the economy is limited, he needs the achievements of the nuclear program.
GAUSE: I think he can dismantle parts of the program. But again, with certain caveats on here. Not verifiable and not irreversible.
INSKEEP: Not verifiable meaning that international inspectors walking around North Korea is just not going to happen, or they're not willing to let it happen.
GAUSE: It's going to be highly constricted and probably not near as much as we would want.
INSKEEP: To accept even a partial dismantling, Kim would need concessions from the United States, like lifting economic sanctions against North Korea. The U.S. has held out that possibility but says North Korea must give up its weapons program first.
GAUSE: Kim is not moving an iota unless the U.S. puts stuff on the table, which means money going into the pockets of the elite because that's the people he has to satisfy.
INSKEEP: Gause is among those who think a step-by-step agreement is still possible. First one side gives a little then the other does. But the Trump administration opposes that incremental approach, fearing North Korea would never finish it. This leaves diplomats still searching for a formula that gives the U.S. what it wants while giving North Korea's power structure what it needs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.