Only hours after announcing last week that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would head to Pyongyang to restart stalled nuclear talks, U.S. President Donald Trump canceled the visit. The trip was only postponed, however; Pompeo could yet go to the North if progress toward denuclearization resumes. Trump appears to think that keeping adversaries off-balance is key to negotiating success. However, it is a dangerous strategy, and one with little likelihood of success.
Talks to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons have been fitful. Pompeo became the lead U.S. negotiator after Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June and declared that he had secured Kim’s commitment to give up his nuclear arsenal. A close reading of the brief statement released after their meeting shows that he did no such thing.
Those who seek the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons worry that Trump is committed to the “success” of his summit regardless of what the North actually does. They fear that Pyongyang will appeal to the president’s vanity and use that as a shield against demands by U.S. negotiators for genuine steps toward denuclearization. North Korea will stall, refuse to make concessions and then blame the resulting breakdown in talks on Pompeo — and Trump would believe them.
In this light, the decision to cancel the visit is a good step because it means that the president is cognizant of the facts. There have been repeated leaks from U.S. intelligence sources that say the North is not denuclearizing and instead has been accelerating production at nuclear and missile facilities. That may have been the reason that Trump tweeted that there had not been “sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” It was also reported that the cancellation followed Trump’s receipt of a letter from a senior North Korean leader — allegedly Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee and Pompeo’s negotiating partner — that was so belligerent in tone that it forced the postponement.
Trump has tried this gambit before. Two weeks before the Singapore summit, he tweeted that the meeting was off, supposedly because of harsh North Korean media criticism of his administration. Then, the suspension lasted just 24 hours; this time it has already been several days and Pyongyang must be getting nervous that the president is not being tactical.
Pyongyang is not just counting on Trump’s commitment to the success of his diplomacy, however. It is also pressing South Korea to continue the process of North-South engagement to ensure that even a U.S. reversal will not result in the resumption of the maximum pressure campaign to squeeze the North Korean economy.
The question is how far South Korea will go to that end, and whether Pyongyang can split Washington from Seoul. There is deepening concern that Seoul is committed to North-South reconciliation regardless of the state of nuclear negotiations. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is scheduled to meet with Kim Jong Un for a third summit, this time in Pyongyang in early September. He has been pressing an aggressive economic agenda, seeking to build North-South cooperation to lay the foundation for regional peace.
Moon convened a National Security Council meeting on Sunday to discuss the situation. Afterward, a presidential spokesperson said that the circumstances underscore Moon’s role “as the facilitator and a mediator unblocking the impasse between North Korea and the U.S. and widening the scope of mutual understanding.” That implies, at least, that Moon will continue to lean forward as the U.S. reassesses. That is worrisome.
Pyongyang may also be trying to shape Japanese thinking. Last week, North Korea arrested and then quickly deported a Japanese tourist “on humanitarian grounds.” The move may be a signal to Tokyo that the North is looking to engage on diplomatic issues. That would be consistent with a strategy that is continually looking for diplomatic partners.
Tokyo too seeks talks with Pyongyang and is ready to engage when the North is prepared. At the same time, however, national security planners must be vigilant against a North Korean threat. The annual defense white paper released this week warns that North Korean “military actions have become an unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat to Japan’s national security,” adding “there is no change in our basic recognition about the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.” Boosting its missile defense capabilities, along with maritime surveillance to prevent the North from evading United Nations-imposed sanctions, remains on Japan’s agenda.
Those measure assume additional importance as the U.S. increases pressure on Pyongyang. While we agree with the Trump administration’s objectives, it is unclear what strategy is behind its diplomacy. Without a strategy, the odds of success recede and the risk of conflict increases.