Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading back home, having completed his third visit to Pyongyang this year. Unsurprisingly, this trip was grossly unsuccessful.
Some observers, including yours truly, have predicted since the very beginning that Secretary Pompeo would come back with little actual gains. But this time, the failure seems to be more pronounced than pretty much everybody could expect.
Pompeo’s departure from Pyongyang was not accompanied by a normal exchange of diplomatic niceties, nor even by a polite silence. Instead, the North Koreans said that results of talks were “regrettable,” while also attacking “unilateral and gangster-like” demands on Pompeo made while demanding “CVID,” that is, complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.
They could not be more clear: they are not going to give in. Denuclearization promises, which for some unfathomable reason were briefly taken seriously even by some otherwise sane people, are not going to be kept. There is nothing new or surprising about it, but the CVID pipedream is falling apart faster than anyone could expect, and this is not good.
Since the early 2000s, there has been little, if any, doubt that nothing short of a massive regime collapse, or (even more violent and bloody) full-scale war, will ever produce a non-nuclear North Korea. The regime is run by cold-minded and rational people who cannot afford to be emotional, idealistic, or ideologically-driven: they are in the deadly serious business of fighting for the physical survival of themselves and their loved ones. They understand that the only way for them to stay alive and in control is to go nuclear, and remain that way for the foreseeable future.
The CVID pipedream is falling apart faster than anyone could expect
However, such a position does not necessarily preclude the possibility of compromise. Indeed, for many years, North Korean negotiators have signaled that Pyongyang would be willing to consider some kind of arms control deal – as long as it is allowed, implicitly or explicitly, to keep a certain number of ready-to-use nuclear weapons.
Negotiators have always said, however, that North Korea is not going to make such concessions for free – they expected massive economic and political remuneration for their willingness to slow down, stop, or even partially reverse their nuclear and ICBM development.
Under Donald Trump’s tenure as U.S. President, it briefly looked possible that such a deal could be achieved soon, and at surprisingly low cost. The massive blackmail campaign conducted by Trump in 2017 worked well. The North Korean leaders, terrified by the looming possibility of an American military strike, were seemingly ready to give many concessions without asking for much in return.
It helped that China, equally nervous, took an unusually tough position on the North Korean nuclear ambitions.
However, if Donald Trump first created this situation, he was also the same person who blew everything up. By all appearances, he, ever a TV personality above everything else, saw the Singapore Summit as a merely nice photo op. No proper preparations were made, so the summit produced a remarkably nebulous statement, which, in some parts, sounded like it was actually written by the DPRK foreign ministry.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU
Even though the Singapore Summit was a debacle, there was still some hope that the subsequent negotiations would, at least, yield more substantial results – not full denuclearization, of course, but at least some meaningful reduction of North Korea’s nuclear and ICBM capabilities. Now, as Mike Pompeo heads home trying to pretend that nothing happened, we can admit: the last nail has been put into the coffin of hope for a meaningful arms control deal.
Many people in the U.S. tell themselves that this debacle is not a big deal, since if denuclearization efforts bear no fruit, the U.S. can always go back to the (real or fake) bellicosity of 2017 and resume the policy of maximum pressure. This policy implies a combination of tough economic sanctions with hints at a possible military action (in a more extreme form, it might include a military operation itself).
However, these expectations are outdated. Recently, the general situation has changed a great deal – largely because the U.S.-China united front is falling apart due to the ongoing trade war between the world’s two major economies.
Trying to please his base and fulfill his electoral promises, Donald Trump chose to hit the Chinese economy with high tariffs. Since international politics has never been about turning the other cheek, China, unable to fully reciprocate with economic countermeasures, is going asymmetrical: hitting the United States where it is most vulnerable, that is, in the area of security and, more specifically, in dealing with North Korea.
The last nail has been put into the coffin of hope for a meaningful arms control deal
It is an open secret that Kim Jong Un, on a personal level, mistrusts and despises China. It is quite possible that he is even a hidden Americophile. These feelings are reciprocated by Xi Jinping, who is not a fan of Kim Jong Un either.
However, personal feelings mean little in policy, so Kim Jong Un’s major goal now is to break the united front of China and the U.S. which suddenly emerged last year.
One has to give Kim Jong Un his due: with his excessive diplomacy, he got close to achieving this vital goal, even though the trade war initiated by the U.S. made his job so much easier. This year Kim Jong Un has met Xi Jinping three times and, presumably, not merely paid homage to China’s greatness, but promised some meaningful and enforceable concessions.
Emerging signals and news from the border indicate that China is no longer going to enforce the tough sanctions regime. Beijing will not openly violate the UN Security Council’s sanctions, but it can find many creative ways to get around existing bans, or deliberately turn a blind eye to ongoing smuggling.
Right now, China sees the North Korean nuclear issue not as a challenge on which it has to cooperate with the U.S., but rather as a tool which can be used to deliver a blow to the United States: revenge for damage caused by the trade war.
All this means that expectations about a return to “maximum pressure” sanctions should be abandoned. But what about expectations about a possible military operation – or the threat of such? They should not be taken too seriously.
NO MORE BLUFFING
In a sense, the Trump administration now finds itself in a position of the boy who cried wolf. When the young boy was crying wolf the first time, everybody took it seriously and presumed he probably meant business. Now, the return to such a policy is not going to be met with the same level of concern.
Even in 2017, there were good reasons to believe that the Trump administration was bluffing. If they are going to start talking about “fire and fury like the world has never seen” once again, they will find a much less credulous audience.
South Korea’s position also matters. So far, President Moon Jae-in has shown himself to be remarkably successful in complicated maneuvering between the United States, China, and North Korea.
He wants cooperation with North Korea (read: he wants to provide North Korea with sufficient aid to keep it under a measure of control and steer it in a desirable direction).
However, he also doesn’t want to annoy the United States, and, so far, he has been successful in such endeavors, but to what extent Seoul will be willing to play the American games if Washington starts crying wolf again it is open to doubt.
The opportunities once created by Donald Trump’s risky brinkmanship have been wasted
One should also keep in mind that in the new situation, China can even suggest that, bound by the 1961 Friendship Treaty with North Korea, it can even consider providing North Korea with some military assistance if this country is attacked.
Of course, we are not talking about Chinese armies crossing the Yalu river once again. Most likely, such assistance will be limited to providing some military hardware, intelligence, and know-how. Nonetheless, even the probability of Chinese assistance should be enough to cool down even the most hawkish elements in the U.S.
Let’s face it, the U.S. policy towards North Korea came close to an impressive – if incomplete – success just a month ago, but right now, it is heading towards a major debacle at remarkable speed, even faster than one expected.
The opportunities once created by Donald Trump’s risky brinkmanship have been wasted.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. State Department