The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists favors all dialogue aimed at reducing nuclear risks, and it therefore supports US President Donald Trump’s decision to engage with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
But media pomp and video symbolism cannot substitute for arms control substance. The high-level goals listed in the joint statement Trump and Kim issued after their meeting are extremely vague, but concrete steps are required, if the nuclear risk that North Korea poses to the United States and the international community is to be reduced. The vagueness of the joint statement creates a distinct possibility that it will quickly evaporate, with regrettable—and possibly catastrophic—results for the region and the world.
The Bulletin is deeply concerned the United States has already committed to cease large-scale military exercises in Northeast Asia without, apparently, first consulting its South Korean allies. This move is part of a deeply problematic pattern, in which the Trump administration aligns with dictators at the expense of longtime US allies and important multinational agreements. It is a pattern that must end, if negotiations with North Korea are to have any chance of succeeding.
As a next step, the United States and North Korea need to agree in specific terms on the characteristics of a “freeze” in activities that would continue during negotiations that could well take years to complete. The United States should insist that the North formally agree to cease all nuclear weapons tests, missile launches, and fissile material production while talks continue. Without such an agreement, talks could drag on fruitlessly for years, perhaps even acting as a cover for continued development of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
The Bulletin encourages the United States and North Korea to seek assistance from a wider range of scientific and policy experts, within and outside their governments, during negotiations. Such technical advice is absolutely necessary, if North Korea’s nuclear program is to be dismantled in a verifiable way that serves the security interests of both countries and, just as important, the interests of South Korea and Japan, longstanding US allies who are vital to securing peace in Northeast Asia.
Notwithstanding the gauzy verbiage of the Singapore joint statement, we think it unlikely that negotiations will soon achieve the complete denuclearization of North Korea (if that goal is ever reached). But the nuclear risk that North Korea poses to the world can be reduced and managed, if negotiations follow a concrete, verifiable, step-by-step roadmap. Frankly, that roadmap should have been drawn long before the Singapore meeting occurred. It should be drawn now.
We are hopeful that yesterday’s meeting in Singapore was a first step toward a safer Korean Peninsula, but we remain doubtful about prospects for progress in this regard, given the Trump administration’s erratic approach to international affairs. When top-level scientific experts from the US national laboratories and elsewhere are brought into the North Korean talks—as they were for the Iran nuclear deal that President Trump has tried so hard to sabotage—we will know his administration is as serious about the substance of addressing North Korea’s nuclear program as it is about the styling of grand public relations events.