Trump-Kim DMZ Diplomacy Fails to Bridge Denuclearization Divide

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SEOUL—The day after President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Unshook hands last month at Korea’s demilitarized zone, Pyongyang’s official report hailed the meeting as delivering a “new breakthrough in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

But not even a month later, the goodwill generated by the DMZ diplomacy appears to have soured.

Pyongyang has grown angrier in recent weeks, sapping its apparent enthusiasm for jump-starting stalled talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear program. The Kim regime’s fury culminated Thursday in the launch of two short-range missiles, the North’s first weapons test since May.

The latest tests were personally guided by Mr. Kim, exhibiting a new “tactical guided weapon system” that can glide at low altitudes and is characterized by a “leaping flight orbit,” according to a Friday state-media report. The North wanted to deliver a “solemn warning to the South Korean military warmongers,” state media said, a reference to a joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise expected next month that has irked Pyongyang.

In the space of a few days, North Korea launched two short-range missiles and showed off a new advanced submarine. WSJ’s Andrew Jeong explains how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is using displays of military might as a warning to the U.S. amid stalled nuclear talks. Photo: KCNA via KNS/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“We cannot but develop nonstop super powerful weapon systems to remove the potential and direct threats to the security of our country that exist in the South,” Mr. Kim said, according to state media.

The Trump administration, as it had following the North’s two May weapons tests, played down the latest provocation. “They really haven’t tested any missiles, you know, other than smaller ones, which is something lots test,” Mr. Trump said in a Fox News interview late Thursday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said working-level talks could start in the next couple of weeks. “Everybody tries to get ready for negotiations and create leverage and create risk for the other side,” he said to Bloomberg Television.

Pyongyang’s recent string of provocations underlines how the U.S. and North Korea still must bridge a fundamental divide: Washington desires a grand deal where Pyongyang agrees to a verifiable disarmament before the unwinding of sanctions, but the Kim regime seeks a more gradual, step-by-step process.

The disagreement helps explain the North’s change of heart this month after the impromptu discussion between Messrs. Trump and Kim. The U.S. has remained committed to the military exercise with South Korea that Mr. Kim calls a national-security threat. And even after the DMZ meeting, senior U.S. officials voiced expectations for talks that reiterated, if not deepened, the country’s position that the North be ready to cut a substantial deal.

“North Korea can’t give up his weapons, then wait for the U.S. to give sanctions relief,” said Kim Joon-hyung, an international relations professor at Handong Global University, in Pohang, South Korea. “That would only be possible if North Korea fully trusted the U.S. But they don’t, which is why North Korea doesn’t have much time.”

A core reason for the North Korean leader’s urgency was highlighted Friday when Seoul’s central bank released closely watched annual data on Pyongyang’s economy. The isolated regime doesn’t disclose its own official economic data. Mr. Kim has promised to revitalize the North’s economy, a process complicated by the sanctions.

The North’s economy declined 4.1% in 2018, Seoul’s Bank of Korea said, a steeper drop than the prior year’s 3.5% fall when the latest round of sanctions were imposed. The North’s mining, agriculture and manufacturing sectors contracted, while trade decreased 50% from the prior year, the bank said.

After the abrupt breakdown of February’s U.S.-North Korea summit in Vietnam, Pyongyang ramped up state-media attacks against senior U.S. officials and policies. It conducted three weapons tests.

However, talks seemed back on track after the June 30 Kim-Trump meeting, where both sides pledged to restart working-level negotiations. Mr. Pompeo, at the time, said he expected negotiations to start by mid-July.

Talks between the U.S. and North Korea raised hopes that Kim Jong Un will stop developing or even surrender his nuclear weapons. But security experts point to satellite images that they say show North Korea ramping up production of its arsenal over the past year. Photo composite: Sharon Shi

On July 15, Mr. Pompeo said that Washington would be “a little more creative” in negotiations with Pyongyang, and that he hopes the North Koreans “will come to the table with ideas that they didn’t have the first time.”

The following day the North lashed out in two separate state-media reports, hinting that it could consider once again testing long-range missiles and that a return to negotiations would depend on the status of the coming U.S.-South Korea military exercise. The Kim regime likely views a suspension of the exercise as a reciprocating gesture for holding off on long-range missile tests, as well as a trust-building measure, especially after the U.S. has made overtures toward peace, said Rachel Lee, a former senior North Korea analyst for the U.S. government.

After the inaugural Trump-Kim summit in June 2018, the U.S. suspended or scaled back some of the larger military exercises conducted with South Korea, though some smaller drills are still carried out, according to U.S. officials.

“It’s a long road map for denuclearization,” Ms. Lee said. “If you keep going back on what you promise, how can I trust you going forward?”

The North has sought to ratchet up pressure on Washington this week. Mr. Kim toured a newly built submarine that expands Pyongyang’s maritime weaponry. Thursday’s launch, like the ones in May, featured missiles that resembled Russian Iskanders, low-flying projectiles that can evade defense systems, according to Seoul’s Defense Ministry.

Some security experts believe Washington, as it pursues a denuclearization deal with Pyongyang, will continue to take a tolerant stance on the North’s short-range missile tests, as they don’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. mainland.

“North Korea would have to blow up a warhead in Times Square to stop Trump from going for this deal,” said Daniel Sneider, a lecturer on international policy at Stanford University.

Write to Timothy W. Martin at timothy.martin@wsj.com, Dasl Yoon at dasl.yoon@wsj.com and Andrew Jeong at andrew.jeong@wsj.com

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