CIA director Mike Pompeo secretly met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in April to lay the groundwork for direct talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, according to U.S. media and first reported by The Washington Post. Pompeo’s visit marks the highest level contact between both nations in 17 years, and suggests a growing desire from both leaders to reach an arrangement over an issue that has dominated much of their foreign policy for the past year.
Unnamed officials said the meeting took place over Easter weekend. Trump alluded to the talks with Pyongyang. “We have had direct talks at … extremely high levels,” Trump said from Mar-a-Lago during a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
When reports emerged in April that North Korea had conveyed an invitation to U.S. President Donald J. Trump to discuss its nuclear arms program, security experts welcomed the news. They were also wary of placing too much stock in it. More than three decades of negotiations between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear weapons program have been fraught with unfulfilled agreements and broken promises.
Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un are tentatively expected to meet next month, although a precise date and location have yet to be agreed upon.
Subject boundaries for the meeting have not been announced, but it is widely expected North Korea’s nuclear development and weapons-making program will dominate. At least one report states North Korea is willing to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons (CNN).
A meeting between Kim and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in March first drew significant attention (CNN). Then, in April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean officials. A date for that meeting hasn’t been announced (CNN).
Should a meeting between Kim and Trump take place, it’s likely both sides will find that when it comes to denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea, the past tends to be prologue.
Discussions since 1985 have yielded mixed results.
The U.S. and North Korea have discussed denuclearization many times in the past, but both parties have been unable to reach substantive agreements, or unwilling to execute agreed-upon obligations.
Relevant recent history begins in 1985, when North Korea signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. A condition of the treaty required North Korea to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on-site inspections to verify compliance. But an agreement with the IAEA did not come together until 1992.
By 1994, the “Hermit Kingdom” threatened to resume developing nuclear weapons. Led by President Bill Clinton, the United States negotiated with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to produce the Agreed Framework. This agreement required North Korea to “freeze” its nuclear program and dismantle its nuclear facilities. In return, the United States agreed to provide oil and energy-related technical advice.
In 1994, North Korea also ended its agreement with the IAEA, meaning the agency’s inspectors weren’t allowed entry to nuclear facilities and could not verify compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), also known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (Arms Control Association).
Another round of talks between the United States and North Korea was scheduled in 1996. Among other things, the United States wanted to stop North Korean sales of ballistic weapon components and technology. According to a report published by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, evidence exists that North Korea was talking to Iran, Syria, and Peru about the sales of missiles and other military equipment around this time. Pyongyang wanted to discuss compensation from the United States for lost income from the sales. Instead, in May 1996, the United States placed sanctions on North Korea for reported sales of military equipment to other nations.
At least three more rounds of talks between the countries took place before an agreement was struck in September 1999. The Hermit Kingdom agreed to stop testing long-range missiles while continuing to talk with the United States about nuclear nonproliferation. The United States agreed to lift some sanctions.
The countries met at least twice during 2000, culminating in U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to North Korea. However, no agreements were concluded at the time.
After Albright’s visit (NPR), the countries continued to meet, but the relationship soon soured.
In 2002, the United States accused North Korea of enriching uranium, and President George W. Bush labeled North Korea as one of three countries comprising an “axis of evil.” In response, North Korea refused to allow an IAEA inspection at the end of the year, ending the Agreed Framework (“Frontline”).
In January 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, saying the United States was a hostile power that had threatened to blockade the country (American Society of International Law).
This led to the so-called Six Party Talks between the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, which began in 2003. The parties issued a joint statement in 2005: North Korea agreed in principle to forgo its nuclear ambitions and to rejoin the nonproliferation treaty; the other signatories agreed to provide energy assistance to North Korea; the United States agreed to not place nuclear weapons in South Korea.
The Six Party Talks ran into difficulties the following year when North Korea complained energy assistance was taking too long to arrive, and resumed testing missiles (“Frontline”). Pyongyang conducted its second underground nuclear test in 2009. The Six Party Talks concluded in a stalemate (“Frontline”; Arms Control Association). In response, the United States and UN imposed stricter sanctions on North Korea.
North Korean ballistic missile tests became more frequent and ambitious after Kim Jong-un took power in late 2011. Led by the United States, an increase in sanctions and criticism from the international community did little to deter the North Korean government’s commitment to developing a nuclear arsenal.
In 2017, Pyongyang successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Chicago (Arms Control Association). Since then leaders of both countries have traded threats – Trump told the UN the United States would destroy North Korea if it were forced to defend itself or its allies from North Korean aggression. He described Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and Kim called Trump a “dotard” (“Frontline”).
In April 2018, following a series of diplomatic overtures that led to meetings between high-ranking officials from North and South Korea, Pyongyang conveyed an invitation to meet with Trump to discuss denuclearization issues (Reuters). Trump accepted Kim’s invitation for a meeting, said to be scheduled for May 2018. North Korea reportedly will agree not to test ballistic or nuclear technology during any period of negotiation with the U.S.
If the meeting takes place, it would be the first time the leaders of both countries have met face-to-face. Whether real progress can be made between the two nations is uncertain. “The U.S. wants a peace treaty at the end of the denuclearization process, while for the North, it’s the precondition for its denuclearization,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies instructor at Dongguk University in Seoul (Bloomberg News).