Report: North Korea is perfecting its missile arsenal as talks with Trump slog on

This is the second report in six weeks from a major paper alleging that the NorKs are taking military advantage of their pas de deux with Trump. In late July the WSJ pointed to satellite imagery suggesting that North Korea had quietly increased production of long-range missiles and fissile material while talks were playing out.

Today it’s the Times citing intelligence sources who believe Kim’s recent missile tests are helping him to hone his regional arsenal. Long-range tests remain off the table (for now) as a diplomatic concession to Trump but the shorter-range tests are useful to NK in perfecting weapons that threaten South Korea and Japan — and the tens of thousands of American troops stationed in those countries.

How useful is a negotiation to Side A if Side B is able to exploit the time involved to increase its leverage over the negotiation? At some point Side B will amass enough of an advantage that it can dictate terms, no? That’s the art of the deal.

American intelligence officials and outside experts have come to a far different conclusion: that the launchings downplayed by Mr. Trump, including two late last month, have allowed Mr. Kim to test missiles with greater range and maneuverability that could overwhelm American defenses in the region.

Japan’s defense minister, Takeshi Iwaya, told reporters in Tokyo last week that the irregular trajectories of the most recent tests were more evidence of a program designed to defeat the defenses Japan has deployed, with American technology, at sea and on shore…

“Kim is exploiting loopholes in his agreements with President Trump pretty brilliantly,” said Vipin Narang, a political-science professor at M.I.T. who studies North Korean weapon advances. “These are mobile-launched, they move fast, they fly very low and they are maneuverable. That’s a nightmare for missile defense. And it’s only a matter of time before those technologies are migrated to longer-range missiles.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has taken the lead in the effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons and missiles, has hinted to foreign counterparts in private meetings in recent weeks that he is fearful the administration is being strung along, according to Japanese and South Korean officials.

It’s easy to ignore news reports about North Korean short-range missile tests. They’ve been saber-rattling in this manner for ages; whenever Kim wants to “send a message,” they roll out something from their arsenal and fire it into the sea. Trump himself has shrugged off the recent short-range tests by insisting that Kim simply enjoys testing missiles. The point of the Times piece is that they’re not just popping off stuff they have on the shelf to remind the world that they should be feared. They’re testing new systems, starting with a solid-fuel missile that can be hidden easily and deployed in minutes instead of the hours it takes to deploy a more conventional liquid-fuel weapon. As noted in the excerpt, at least one missile they’ve tested recently may be a variation on a Russian model that flies low and can maneuver, rendering missile-defense systems potentially useless. They’re also experimenting with launch systems that can fire many more weapons at once than they’ve traditionally been able to launch. That’s another way to defeat missile defenses — throw so many darts at the enemy in one volley that they’re overwhelmed, unable to deflect them all.

Trump’s getting killed by critics over this report (“Kim has ridden Trump like a pony”) but it’s a rare case in which what seems like incompetence might actually be strategic. Not a good strategy, but a strategy regardless. It could be incompetence, of course: Maybe Trump really does believe that he and Kim are bros now, that they’ve developed a rapport, and that this is all going to lead to some diplomatic masterstroke in which Kim agrees to give up … something in return for sanctions relief. If so, Trump might let himself be strung along to the very end of his presidency. His most admirable quality as president is his reluctance to wage war. He’s not going to ignite a Korean apocalypse unless Kim gives him zero alternative. All the NorKs have to do is keep dangling talks at him and he’ll keep chasing that alternative.

But there’s a potential strategic explanation too. Maybe Trump has already stopped caring about denuclearization, recognizing it (correctly) as a pipe dream. At the end of the day he doesn’t care who’s threatened by North Korean nuclear devastation so long as it isn’t the U.S. That’s what “America First” means, right? In other words, it’s conceivable that he no longer regards his goal as a nuclear-free North Korea but rather a North Korean that can’t threaten the United States with its nuclear arsenal. In which case, what would happen if Kim agreed to an indefinite freeze on North Korean ICBM development — replete with UN inspections — in exchange for sanctions relief plus U.S. military withdrawal from South Korea and Japan? Kim would be offering Trump a devil’s bargain in which he’d guarantee America’s security in exchange for us recognizing his right to menace his next-door neighbors, Japan and South Korea, with nuclear war. That would extricate us from a mess in the Far East, and a diplomatic pretext for full withdrawal of American soldiers would appeal deeply to Trump’s isolationist tactics. He’s actually mused about withdrawing U.S. troops before, remember.

Is that the deal he’s waiting for or even trying to engineer, essentially an invitation to pull out of the region and tell South Korea and Japan, “Good luck”? No other country in the world would trust American security guarantees after that, but what does Trump care about that?

Exit question: Could Bolton and Pompeo convince Trump not to agree to those terms by successfully explaining that of course the North would continue secretly developing ICBMs even if they promised him they wouldn’t? Jury’s out, I think. Especially since Trump no longer seems to be listening to Bolton.