President Donald Trump's summit with Kim Jong Un offered a small ray of hope that North Korea might ease its nuclear threat. But left untouched in the talks was Kim's arsenal of chemical weapons, an omission that baffles some security analysts, given that Pyongyang stands accused of using such armaments and sharing the technology with Syria.
At their summit in Singapore last week, Trump and Kim signed a joint statement declaring their commitment to "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." The statement did not mention North Korea's suspected stockpile of VX, sarin and other chemical and biological weapons.
Administration officials said that chemical weapons will become part of the dialogue with North Korea. A senior administration official said Monday there are several UN Security Council resolutions that require North Korea to eliminate all of its weapons of mass destruction. "Those resolutions were unanimously passed and are binding. North Korea must fulfill these obligations," the official said.
But North Korea has ignored Security Council resolutions before, which is why some analysts say elimination of chemical weapons must be part of the conditions for easing sanctions on North Korea.
Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst on Korea, said she was surprised the Trump administration didn't include this requirement in its joint statement. North Korea is thought to have stockpiled up to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, which could easily be fired across the demilitarized zone to target U.S. and South Korean troops, as well as millions of civilians in Seoul.
"We have to address chemical and biological weapons, but whether this administration will go there, right now, is highly doubtful," said Terry, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We didn't even get very much specific on the nuke front."
Troy Stangarone, a former U.S. Senate aide and Korea specialist, said he expects the White House to bring up chemical weapons as talks progress. But he warned against waiting too long. That might justifiably prompt North Korea to accuse U.S. negotiators of "moving the goal posts."
He also expressed concern that Trump quickly agreed to suspend military exercises between U.S. and South Korean forces without similar concessions from Pyongyang, and to do so without consulting allies in Seoul. During such exercises, U.S. and South Korean troops often don chemical warfare protective suits and train for conducting military operations amid poisonous conditions.
"The longer you have a delay in exercises, the longer you are going to degrade readiness," said Stangarone, a senior director with the Korea Economic Institute of America.
North Korea launched its chemical and biological weapons program in the 1960s, and has since used eight plants nationwide for manufacturing these weapons, according to a report last year by Reid Kirby, a military historian and specialist in chemical warfare. "The quantity, quality, and durability of the North Korean chemical arsenal are unknown," wrote Kirby, but it is thought to be about 2,500 - 5,000 tons.
Officially, North Korea denies developing chemical warfare agents, but it is one of a handful of countries that have not signed the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, aimed at eliminating the proliferation and use of these armaments. In addition, there is evidence that North Korea has not only stockpiled chemical agents such as VX, a nerve gas, but has deployed them.
In February 2017, VX was used to kill one of Kim Jong Un's adversaries — his estranged half brother, Kim Jong Nam — at a crowded international airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In March this year, the U.S. State Department determined that North Korea was responsible for use of the VX nerve agent in the assassination, and slapped new sanctions on Pyongyang.
From the North Korean perspective, its chemical and biological armaments help deter an sneak attack from South Korea, or could be used to slow down and disrupt a counterattack from allied forces, said Stragarone. But North Korea has also used its chemical arsenal to attract needed hard currency, by selling components to rogue regimes.
A confidential U.N. report this year disclosed that North Korea has stepped up its assistance to Syria in developing chemical weapons and missiles, which Syria is accused of using against rebel enemies and civilians. The U.N. report, first reported by The Washington Post, followed a previous U.N. report that accused North Korea of providing Syria with protective equipment that could be used by Syrian troops in zones where chemical weapons had been deployed.
"Proliferation is a serious concern," Terry said. "We cannot have any agreement with North Korea that does not include chemical weapons."
Stangarone noted that, right before the Trump-Kim summit, North Korean state media reported that Syrian President Bashar Assad planned to meet with Kim. "It is disconcerting that, so soon into this process, North Korea would agree to meet with someone who has utilized these weapons," he said.
Since June 12, Trump has hailed his Singapore summit with Kim and pushed back against critics who've labeled it a P.R. stunt. "Over here, in our country, some people would rather see this historic deal fail than give Trump a win, even if it does save potentially millions & millions of lives!," he tweeted Sunday.
Earlier, he stated that people could "sleep well tonight" because of the meeting.
For tensions to drop in the Korean Peninsula, Kim Jong Un would need to agree to several verification steps, said both Terry and Stangarone.
Kim would need to disclose the extent of his weapons of mass destruction, where they are located and the location of production facilities used to make them. He need to agree to verifiable provisions for destruction or disposal of those weapons, and he'd need to sign or abide by international pacts North Korea has previously spurned, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
So far, Kim has given no indication he'd agree to that level of scrutiny and cooperation. And from the outside, U.S. and South Korean leaders seem split on what their next steps should be.
The two allies need to be in sync, said Victor Cha, a senior advisor at CSIS and once a leading prospect to serve as Trump's ambassador to South Korea. "The only party that benefits when we get out of sync is North Korea, because they then can drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States," he said at a CSIS forum in Washington on Monday.