Since President Trump’s decision to cancel the summit – a move he later appeared to reverse – we now have converging accounts about how that decision was made. Coming in the wake of a meeting that included the President, Vice President, Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, perhaps the most important factor was the apparent breakdown in communication between the two sides, an important sign that Pyongyang, as well as Washington, was resorting to tactical maneuver of getting cold feet.
But an important piece of evidence against the North Koreans was the KCNA press statement by Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui, and it is worth parsing what both she and Vice President Pence said, as the back and forth demonstrates clearly the problems the Trump administration is going to have staying on message.
Her commentary starts—in the first sentence—with reference to Vice President Pence’s comments on Fox News on May 21. So what did Pence say?
The first issue where Pence appeared at odds with Secretary Pompeo’s more cautious and realistic strategy—and even with recent statements by the President—concerned sequencing. The administration and Secretary Pompeo have rightly reached for an ambitious agreement, but almost certainly with some phasing of commitments. But Vice President Pence muddied the waters by suggesting that everything needed to get done before North Korea received anything in return:
“Well, what the President has made clear is that we need complete and verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, and there’s opportunities and benefits for North Korea once we reach that point of no return.”
The back and forth demonstrates clearly the problems the Trump administration is going to have staying on message
Later in the same portion of the interview Pence said that it all begins with North Korea “committing to completely (sic) denuclearization—taking concrete steps to achieve that.” But the damage had been done: is the U.S., in fact, putting unrealistic preconditions on the table or is the message being carried by Secretary Pompeo the real message?
Second, the Vice President completely bungled the “Libya model” question. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s earlier commentary making reference to Libya was ill-advised to be sure (see here). Bolton was also misunderstood, however, as he was referring not to the 2011 NATO-led intervention but to the December 2003 denuclearization agreement.
That agreement addressed a number of other issues, including the Lockerbie bombing and terrorism. Nonetheless, a key feature of that agreement was that crucial components of the Libyan weapons program would actually be shipped out of the country; Bolton made it clear that he was speaking about that part of the agreement.
From North Korea’s perspective, of course, the reference to Libya invoked Qadaffi’s demise. Unfortunately, Pence did not walk away from that interpretation but made it explicit:
“You know, there was some talk about the Libya model last week. And you know, as the President made clear, you know, this will only end like the Libya Model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.”
The Fox News interviewer Martha MacCallum tried to clarify: isn’t that a threat? Pence doubled down by stating “it’s more of a fact.”
But the parallels between North Korea and Libya are, in fact, tenuous. It is highly unlikely that North Korea is going to collapse into a civil war, with competing factions holding territory within the country. Nor is it likely that a NATO-style intervention would unseat Kim Jong Un.
The Vice President completely bungled the “Libya model” question
But the Libya parallel bleeds into a third messaging problem: the resort to military threats. Immediately following his discussion of Libya, Pence segued into a discussion of the fact that all options remain on the table:
“MACCALLUM: Yes, I mean, if it doesn’t happen, the military option is basically back on the table.
PENCE: Well, it never came off, Martha. The truth is that President Trump has made it clear that this administration will not tolerate the regime in North Korea possessing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten our people, that threaten the United States of America, that threaten our allies in the region.”
Everyone knows that the U.S. has military options, even if they are not good. Restating them does not necessarily strengthen the U.S. hand, and it certainly not likely to improve the atmosphere. Teddy Roosevelt’s injunction pertains: speak softly and carry a big stick.
Subsequent comments by President Trump and Congressional testimony by Secretary Pompeo leave held open the door to diplomacy. But the President did not back away from the military option either, opening his remarks following the letter by noting he had talked to Secretary Mattis—and even to Japan and South Korea–about military options.
Getting a meaningful agreement in Singapore remains a long shot
It is more likely, however, that they are indicative of a problem that has plagued the Trump administration from its inception: a chaotic and ad hoc decision-making process and the resultant inability to deliver a coherent message. Trump’s defenders tout his unpredictability as an asset, but to date it has yielded very little.
The move to accept the summit invitation was a bold one, but also impulsive: the rush to a summit was bound to generate nervousness as the limits of the possible became more and more apparent. Even with close cooperation between Pompeo’s team and North Korea, getting a meaningful agreement in Singapore remains a long shot.
These risks were subsequently compounded by mixed messaging, most notably from John Bolton but particularly from the Vice President. If the pause makes the administration more secure and provides breathing room for more preparation, then the result is positive. But let’s not make the mistake of attributing this result to a coherent strategy.
With a visit by U.S. officials to the North on Sunday, the current betting is that the summit will likely take place. Yet the administration’s decision-making process and messaging suggest more bumps of this sort are a near certainty.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Gage Skidmore
Since President Trump's decision to cancel the summit - a move he later appeared to reverse - we now have converging accounts about how that decision was made. Coming in the wake of a meeting that included the President, Vice President, Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, perhaps the most important factor was the apparent breakdown in communication between the two
Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, director of the Korea-Pacific Program, and distinguished professor of political science at UC San Diego. With Marcus Noland, he is the author of "Hard Target: Sanctions, Inducements and the Case of North Korea" (Stanford University Press, 2017).