On Thursday, North Korea shattered any illusions that may still linger in Seoul and Washington about the reclusive state’s willingness to negotiate away its nuclear deterrent.

It did so by defining exactly what it means by “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” – the mission-critical phrase that was at the heart of the June Singapore Summit Declaration signed by Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.

While North Korea’s rhetoric is frequently explosive, the bombshell announcement from the Korea Central New Agency – an outlet frequently used to send regime messages to the global community – was couched in plain writing which leaves little leeway for misinterpretation.

Make no mistake: This is serious. It is not a simple disagreement over nomenclature. It makes starkly clear a divergence of opinion not only over what denuclearization is, but to whom it applies.

The statement reads, in part: “The United States must now recognize the accurate meaning of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and especially, must study geography. When we talk about the Korean Peninsula, it includes the territory of our republic and also the entire region of [South Korea] where the United States has placed its invasive force, including nuclear weapons. When we talk about the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it means the removal of all sources of nuclear threat, not only from the South and North but also from areas neighboring the Korean Peninsula.”

Thus far, the Trump administration has seen fit to believe that “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”  – a term the North has been using for years – encompasses the preferred US definition of CVID (‘complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement”).

In fact – as weary experts have been warning all year – it means very nearly the opposite.

It is not a simple disagreement over nomenclature. It makes starkly clear a divergence of opinion not only over what denuclearization is, but to whom it applies

As per the statement, “It would be proper to say that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula means ‘completely removing the nuclear threats of the US to the DPRK,’” – the latter being the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

What “nuclear threats” might those be? The 28,500 US troops in South Korea (who, in fact, sent home their tactical nuclear weapons in 1991, but could easily repossess and deploy them). US troops in Japan and US naval assets – such as missile-armed submarines and surface ships, as well as aircraft carriers with embarked air wings capable of carrying nuclear weapons – that patrol the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan.

It almost certainly includes strategic bombers in Guam, and may extend even to the Minuteman II and III ICBM force on the US mainland.

In short, it is talking about the US nuclear umbrella in the Pacific. The chances of the United States accepting the North’s demands on this are precisely zero – not least because it is not just South Korea, but also Japan, which falls under the US atomic aegis.

The message comes amid frozen dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington. North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Yong Chol and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have made virtually zero progress on advancing denuclearization in the months following the Singapore summit.

Today, the US Special Envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun visited the DMZ (demilitarized zone) to get his closest ever look at North Korea – a nation into whose soil he has never set foot, and with whose envoys he has never met. Pathetically, the would-be US peacemaker has got no closer to North Korea than any Seoul tourist on a half-day DMZ tour.

Pyongyang’s message should shake Seoul – clinging, hope against hope, to a belief that the North really is willing to negotiate away its “treasure sword” – to the core. And it should serve notice to Washington that the intractable problem of North Korea is today no more tractable than it was under previous administrations.

Stress tests for Moon, Trump

South Korean President Moon Jae-in deserves kudos: He has tried as hard as any man could to bring Pyongyang and Washington to an agreement. But the dice were loaded from the start.

He has been widely accused of wishful thinking and spin doctoring in his enthusiastic courting of Pyongyang. Now, his credibility as a viable intermediary must be in question. In 2019, he may no longer be able to play the in-between game; he may have to make an either-or decision.

Will he fall firmly into lock step with an often overbearing and self-interested nation that is, however, the only actual ally his country has on the world scene, and one that has proven largely trustworthy for over half a century? Or will he climb fully into bed with the charming but ruthless head of a dictatorship which is, nevertheless, a brother nation, but whose trustworthiness is highly questionable?

Much depends on Trump. His mooted (but still unconfirmed) second summit with Kim next year has now fallen further into shadow.

The US president may continue with his blasé approach to Pyongyang – happy to keep North Korea at the back of his mind given that there are no nuclear devices being detonated and no test missiles soaring through the stratosphere over Japan, and given, also, how well he apparently gets along with Kim on a personal level.

This is what Pyongyang has long sought: acceptance as a de facto nuclear power.

Alternatively, Trump may concede what so, so many have warned against: That he has been humbugged from the start by a wily counterpart who never had any sincere intention of denuclearizing.

The question in that case is what Trump’s “Plan B” consists of. Given the colossal risk and likely ineffectiveness of any military option beyond full-scale invasion, the likeliest approach would be to deploy the full might of the US Treasury and implement secondary sanctions, without mercy, on any person or entity engaged in or with the North.

The case for Kim’s stance…

Even given the currently icy state of relations between Pyongyang and Washington, it is difficult to understand why Kim fired this shot at this time. Is he hoping to light a fire that will thaw the frosty relations? If so, it seems a miscalculation: Washington has now been informed that denuclearization talks include American, as well as North Korean assets.

Still, viewing the situation exclusively through the prism of diplomacy, one can feel some sympathy for Kim. After all, the June Summit Declaration outlined four steps, of which denuclearization was just one.

  1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
  2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
  3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018, Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
  4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

North Korea has made some efforts (albeit unverified and reversible ones) on the denuclearization front, such as blowing up entrances to an underground nuclear test site and partly dismantling a missile engine test facility. It has also sent, in good faith, some 50 sets of Korean War remains to the US.

The United States has delivered little in return, beyond halting military exercises. It has not eased sanctions or offered any kind of formal relations. It has also ignored noises from both Seoul and Pyongyang to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.

Moreover, Washington has also demanded that North Korea denuclearize before it can be granted any benefits. This highly unusual stance puts the desired end result (ie denuclearization) ahead of any quid pro quo (ie the heart of virtually any negotiation).

And more broadly, of course, the US possesses a nuclear force that is far, far larger than anything North Korea could dream of owning.

…the case against Kim’s stance

Viewing the situation though any other prism, however, it is difficult to feel sympathy for Kim.

He draws his legitimacy from a grandfather who unleashed a war that killed millions but which he deflected responsibility for; and from his father, whose inability or refusal to reform resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his subjects from famine.

He presides over a paranoid, nationalistic, militarized state where weaponry takes priority over public nutrition and public health, and where a rigid class system prevails, and where the rights to freedom of assembly, speech and travel are non-existent. The state security apparatus is vast, nobody dares criticize the leadership and tens of thousands suffer in political prison camps.

Kim, who by all accounts not only enjoys a life of privilege but who wallows in luxury, has proven personally ruthless, ordering the execution of an uncle and likely ordering the assassination of a half-brother.

This is the man whose nuclear deterrent – widely seen as a prop for his own regime – is challenging the uneasy agreements that underwrite the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Given all this, North Korea has no supporters in international society beyond Russia and China – and China might better be classified as a frenemy than a friend. Even Moon, keener than any other South Korean leader to extend an olive branch to Kim, cannot overlook the harsh realities of the North Korean state.

Many were expecting 2019 to be the make-or-break year for denuclearization. Today’s announcement indicates that the likelihood lies in ruins a week before the new year even begins.