- - Thursday, August 9, 2018


The path to de-nuclearizing North Korea hasn’t even begun, and the early optimism of President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has given way to a starkly different reality of stalled progress and back and forth barbs in the diplomatic backwash of reality. On Thursday, the Pyongyang government called Trump administration officials “servile mouthpieces” and accused the likes of Messrs. Bolton and Pompeo of fabricating “all kinds of falsehoods.”

The president’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said this week that “North Korea has not taken the steps we feel are necessary to denuclearize.” But the president’s own advisers say denuclearization on the peninsula could — and should — take a decade or more.

Outwardly, President Trump and Mr. Kim are still projecting optimism. The two have become pen pals since the handshake that shook the world. Calling it “a nice note,” President Trump posted a letter from Mr. Kim on Twitter in which Mr. Kim praised “the start of a meaningful journey.” Mr. Bolton reiterated Monday, however, that the journey is still prospective. “We’re waiting for the North Koreans to begin the process of denuclearization.”

On the leader level, President Trump says he still hopes to give Kim Jong-un an opportunity to slip Elton John’s “Rocket Man” into a CD player and listen to it for the first time. Even as the civility between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim persists, the fragile trust between their representatives seems to have returned to the tit-for-tat attacks of 2017, when Mr. Trump derisively called Mr. Kim “Rocket Man” and North Korea called Mr. Trump a “mentally deranged dotard.”

Mike Pompeo, secretary of State, could not pass on Mr. Trump’s gift of an autographed Elton John CD when he was not invited even to meet the North Korean leader during his short trip last month, meeting instead with a top adviser, Kim Yong-Chol. After a restful night in Pyongyang, Kim Yong-Chol asked the secretary of State whether he had slept well the night before.

“I did, thank you,” Mr. Pompeo said, not expecting a set-up, which followed when the top aide said, “But we did have very serious discussion on very important matters yesterday. So thinking about those discussions you might have not slept well.” Mr. Pompeo replied curtly, “I slept just fine.”

Mr. Pompeo’s departing plane had hardly lifted from the runway when the North Koreans put out a statement calling the visit “regrettable.” The U.S. demands taken to North Korea were dismissed rudely by the Kim government as “gangster-like.” Mr. Pompeo, by now in Tokyo, retorted that “if those requests were gangster-like, the world is a gangster, because there was a unanimous decision of the U.N. Security Council about what needs to be done.”

The president responded in his own way, on Twitter, naturally, where his “Rocket Man” threats against Kim eventually led to the meeting in Singapore. “I have confidence that Kim Jong-un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake. We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea.” Mr. Trump reminded everyone. The secretary of State said the administration’s commitment to achieve “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” on the peninsula still holds.

But a lot still has to happen before the United States can call the mission a success. North Korea’s achieving nuclear arms required 25 years, and the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation says some time will be required to dismantle that progress. The roadmap to denuclearization in the Stanford study estimates ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons will require from 10 to 15 years, depending on political and diplomatic delays. Nuclear arms wonks say this “halt, rollback, and eliminate” approach is necessary to enable the United States to reduce and manage risks.

As if the tasks of removing nuclear weapons, halting uranium enrichment, disabling reactors, and closing nuclear test sites aren’t arduous enough, the diplomatic hiccups that are sure to stall everything have already come into play. Mr. Trump’s latest letter to his pen-pal contained a proposal for Mr. Pompeo to return to Pyongyang to meet with Mr. Kim.

If that “Rocket Man” tune ever makes it to Mr. Kim’s ears, it’s hard to imagine the North Korean leader will hear an opportunity beckoning when he hears the chorus, “it’s gonna be a long, long time.” The path to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula will be at least that.

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