Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula Doesn’t Mean What Trump Thinks It Does

At a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, Donald Trump once again reminded us of his naiveté when it comes to matters of nuclear weapons policy. In the middle of a diatribe on his self-declared successes after the summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore last week, Trump proclaimed that “sentence one” (presumably referring to the joint statement released at the conclusion of the summit) contained Kim’s commitment to “a total denuclearization of North Korea.”

In fact, denuclearization doesn’t come up until the third sentence, which reads: “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Critically, Trump’s use of North Korea differs more drastically from ‘Korean peninsula’ than it might initially seem.

To fully grasp the issue, we have to look at the history behind this issue. As arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis so eloquently explains in the New York Times, ‘denuclearization’ is a term unique to the Korean peninsula. And actually it has historically been used, in part, to reference U.S. nuclear weapons. In 1991, the United States withdrew all nuclear weapons it had previously placed in South Korea, partially to incentivize North Korea away from initiating a nuclear weapons program of its own. The word then made it into a joint declaration between North and South Korea released in 1992. The statement begins “In order to eliminate the danger of nuclear war through the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula…” in order to encompass both the potential for North Korea to begin a program and the recently withdrawn American weapons.

All of that wonkiness boils down to two things: 1) the word is purposefully vague, and 2) it could still be used in reference to America’s weapons. Kim Jong Un could argue that U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) count as a nuclear weapon on the Korean Peninsula, because they could reach North Korea. They could argue a lot of things. The vagueness of the term allows it to mean whatever each leader wants it to mean. (Not to mention that it’s just plain difficult to translate any nuclear terminology into another language in the first place.) Just look to the long process between Chinese and American experts, and you begin to understand the complexity of terminology in these cases.

So, as it was extensively defined in the 1992 joint declaration, a lot of time has to be put into precisely defining it today. And until that happens, Trump needs to be more careful about what he says to the public. Setting expectations too high and eschewing transparency to the public could paint Trump (and the United States) into a corner. The kind of corner that U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham is referring to when he says if diplomacy fails “Trump needs to bring this threat to an end.”

The public needs to know how exactly the negotiations process is progressing and get an honest, realistic picture of the situation as it actually is. To achieve that standard, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should work effectively with Congress to hold consistent briefings on the negotiations – just as they regularly occurred when negotiations were taking place on the Iran deal. Trump may have been wrong last night, but we can all hope that one day his claim will become reality.