Beyond Euphoria in Pyongyang

For some, it appears that the euphoria of the Singapore summit of last June seems more like four years than four months ago. The sunny optimism of a historic breakthrough in negotiations with the North Koreans clouded over perhaps even more quickly than skeptics warned at the time.

True, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un demonstrated a willingness to meet with President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the accompanying rhetorical and ceremonial gestures offered hope of peace on the peninsula. The ostensible good intentions were even put into writing.

But gestures are only gestures, and what was put in writing was sufficiently ambiguous to allow Pyongyang to think it could resume its policy of feints and threats and duplicity aimed at holding onto its nuclear weapons while wringing concessions from the U.S. and South Korea.

When the U.S. turned out to be less pliable than the North had hoped, the rhetoric of militancy returned. In July, Pyongyang denounced Pompeo for making “gangster-like demands.”

Of course, those “gangster-like demands” were merely an insistence that North Korea deliver on the spirit as well as the letter of its pledges. That meant furnishing an inspection team with a complete inventory of its weapons and facilities, and taking concrete, verifiable steps toward the dismantling of its nuclear arsenal.

It looked like Pyongyang might never have had any such intention, and the hopes of a short while before were already unraveling.

But that did not happen. Nor did the U.S. capitulate on its firm demands for the denuclearization of the North, complete with a rigorous inspection regime that would assure the world that Pyongyang was coming clean this time.

And in what must be a maddening novelty to the North, the U.S. also would not agree to easing sanctions on the regime, insisting that that would come only after compliance, not before.

Yet, despite the bluster, North Korea did not abandon the negotiations. It remained engaged, and talks continued, albeit in a somewhat less starry-eyed manner.

On Monday, Euphoria II appeared to have arrived. After meeting with Kim Jong Un on his fourth trip to the North, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the young dictator was finally ready to allow international inspectors into the North’s nuclear- and missile-testing sites.

Pompeo said the inspectors would visit a missile engine test facility and the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site as soon as the two sides agree on logistics.

“There’s a lot of logistics that will be required to execute that,” Pompeo told a news briefing in Seoul before leaving for Beijing.

In addition, he said both sides were “pretty close” to agreement on a second summit, which Kim proposed to President Trump in a letter last month.

“Most importantly, both the leaders believe there’s real progress that can be made, substantive progress that can be made at the next summit,” Pompeo said.

It was upbeat stuff, the kind of thing that makes those frequent-flyer miles worth the trouble.

But Pompeo made it clear, as he has from the outset, that the path to denuclearization and a permanent Korean peace would not be easy, and would not be achieved in a single summit, or even two.

He characterized his latest trip to Pyongyang to Moon Jae-in on Sunday as “another step forward” to denuclearization, but cautioned that there are “many steps along the way.”

It was evident as well from the secretary’s words that a second summit could not be expected to resolve all issues. Rather, it would be a chance to make “substantive progress.”

Not the end of the conflict, but not empty photo-ops either. Rather, real changes in policy that would justify a second summit.

It should also be pointed out that admitting inspectors to test sites is only an interim objective. Ultimately, North Korea must destroy or surrender its actual weapons and put an end to the threat that it has held over the South for decades.

That, and nothing less, is the diplomatic goal Washington is pursuing.

It is certainly a worthwhile goal, which validates all that is going into the process — the pomp and bombast in public, as well as the hard-nosed negotiations in private.

The patience and perseverance the administration has shown so far is reason to be hopeful that the goal can be attained.