SEOUL, South Korea — In hailing the deal he reached with Kim Jong-un this summer in Singapore, President Trump said it “largely solved” the North Korean nuclear crisis.
He has since doubled down on that statement, most recently on Tuesday. “People don’t realize the importance of the first meeting,” he said. “I mean, we said, ‘Point No. 1: denuclearization.’ They’ve agreed to denuclearization.”
It was actually the third bullet point in the four-point Singapore agreement, and for the North Koreans, the order of those bullet points is everything. It will only agree to denuclearize once Washington commits to the first and second points: Mr. Trump’s promise to build “new” relations and a “peace regime” in Korea — and makes North Korea feel secure enough to disarm.
The standoff shows how North Korea has turned the deal Mr. Trump signed with its leader, Mr. Kim, into one of its most effective cudgels in talks with Washington over denuclearization, ceaselessly flaunting it to force American concessions.
For all the warm talk between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, the differing interpretations of the Singapore deal show the two sides remain locked in the same yearslong stalemate, with Washington focused on denuclearizing North Korea and the North using its nuclear weapons as leverage to win diplomatic recognition from the United States and seek a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. And those differing readings of the deal raise questions about whether Mr. Trump will ever succeed in getting North Korea to denuclearize.
Even President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who has positioned himself as a mediator between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, has said that to denuclearize the North, Washington must build Mr. Kim’s confidence that his country can survive without nuclear weapons. And many analysts agree.
“A country like North Korea — a small and weak country diplomatically isolated and economically devastated and a country surrounded by big powers — may feel very insecure, even though its neighboring countries have no intention to attack them,” said Yoon Young-kwan, a former South Korean foreign minister and professor emeritus at Seoul National University.
Skeptics warn that in its talks with the United States, North Korea is giving up just enough to create the illusion of progress while enabling Mr. Trump to claim victory.
This year, North Korea imposed a voluntary moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests and shut down its underground nuclear test site. Last month, it agreed to dismantle some missile-test facilities and — if Washington took “corresponding” steps — to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear complex, a center for producing nuclear bomb fuel.
But it has not clarified what it will do with its nuclear warheads and missiles, as well as the facilities that produce them.
South Korean conservatives fear that Mr. Kim’s real intention is not to denuclearize but to use negotiations for a peace treaty to drive out 28,500 American troops based in the South.
And H.R. McMaster, who served as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser until April, warned that Mr. Kim may hold onto his nuclear arsenal to force the reunification of the two Koreas under his regime.
“We must remain alert to the possibility that his regime meant what it said when its officials stated on numerous occasions: that his nuclear arsenal would constitute a ‘treasured sword’ designed to pry apart the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea, by making America think twice about ever coming to South Korea’s aid in time of war,” Mr. McMaster said at the annual World Knowledge Forum in Seoul, the South’s capital, on Wednesday.
Until recently, it had appeared all but impossible to imagine North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, or Washington providing the incentives the North wanted, like a peace treaty.
But Mr. Trump, Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon are shaking up conventional notions and giving hope to some that personal chemistry can bring progress where past talks stalled.
Mr. Trump has said he is “in love” with Mr. Kim, whom he once called a “Rocket Man” on a “suicide mission.” Mr. Kim has said he cherishes the “friendly relationship and trust” forged with Mr. Trump, whom he once called a “dotard.”
Mr. Moon, who has met Mr. Kim three times since April, helped fashion the North Korean dictator’s image makeover, encouraging him to appear with him on live television and repeatedly describing him as a “young” and “candid” leader prepared to give up his nuclear weapons in exchange for economic development and better ties with Washington.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting Sunday with Mr. Kim suggested that Washington may have realized it must address Mr. Kim’s concerns about security to make progress in talks over denuclearization.
“The secretary and Chairman Kim discussed the four pillars of the Singapore summit,” Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, said Tuesday. “That was something that was important for them to do.”
The Singapore deal is not the first time the United States has reached broad, ambiguous agreements with North Korea. Both sides struck similar deals in 1994 and 2005, although they were not signed by the top leaders as the Singapore agreement was.
But those deals failed to bear fruit. In recent weeks, talks have stalled over when North Korea should divulge all the details of its nuclear program and when Washington should ease sanctions and provide a declaration ending the Korean War.
North Korea has traditionally viewed denuclearization as taking place in sequenced “phases” for which it demands “simultaneous” incentives from Washington for each step.
The decades-old negotiating style, known as a “salami-slicing tactic,” is embedded in the Singapore statement, which commits North Korea to work “toward” denuclearization while obligating Washington to improve ties and remove hostilities on the divided Korean Peninsula. That obligation comes partly from the country’s fear that its nuclear weapons are its only strong bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington, one it cannot afford to waste.
Some analysts already see a replay of past stalemates.
In May, North Korea unilaterally dynamited its Punggye-ri nuclear test site to help entice Mr. Trump to meet with Mr. Kim in June, but did not invite outside inspectors to determine how thoroughly the site was dismantled or to collect vital data on its weapons program.
Now, as he seeks a second meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Kim is again using Punggye-ri as an incentive, saying North Korea will invite outside experts to the site. But there is already quibbling over whether a full inspection will be allowed.
Mr. Kim “has mastered the art of milking a single cosmetic concession for months,” Vipin Narang, an expert on North Korea at M.I.T., said on Twitter this week. “Brilliantly selling the same horse twice.”