If North Korea has made the “strategic shift” that Secretary Pompeo claimed they had, there is precious little from his trip to Pyongyang this week to demonstrate it.
With a stream of revelations about ongoing nuclear and missile activities, the Secretary was reduced to bargaining over a small-bore concession that had supposedly already been granted: the destruction of a missile-engine test stand.
And even with limited progress on that concession, the North Koreans were quick to bad-mouth the talks.
If there is any silver lining to Pompeo’s visit, it was the growing evidence that the American conception of the negotiations is not adequately ambitious. If the Trump administration believed they could structure talks narrowly around the nuclear issue alone, the summit already proved them wrong. Working groups on technical details are premature if there is not a broader framework.
If progress is still possible, it will be through a widening—not narrowing—of the agenda and a second Trump-Kim summit that will actually reach substantive agreements. If these efforts fail, we will quickly test the ability of the administration sustain the sanctions regime and risks of a return to “fire and fury” will rise.
If the Trump administration believed they could structure talks narrowly around the nuclear issue alone, the summit already proved them wrong
The key feature of the current negotiations is that both sides are trying to take credit for concessions they have made, demanding that “step by step” reciprocal action is now required by the other side.
For the U.S., that concession was the hastily-announced and ill-conceived cancellation of exercises, for which essentially nothing was received in return. As a result, from Washington’s perspective, the ball was in North Korea’s court going into the Pyongyang meetings. Was Kim Jong Un going to show good faith or not?
By contrast, early statements by the North Koreans cited in New York Times coverage have them claiming the unmonitored destruction of some tunnels at their nuclear test site as their irreversible concession. Canceling the exercises remains subject to reversal. Translation: the North Koreans want more.
But not only has North Korea failed to reciprocate on the cancellation of exercises; rather, it has turned up the pressure.
The catalog of North Korean actions is now long and growing. The NBC revelations, parsed by Ankit Panda here, got the most public scrutiny. The deeply-sourced story focused primarily on the second enrichment site.
But that story was only the tip of the iceberg. Analysis of satellite imagery at 38 North focused on new construction at Yongbyon and the lack of any progress toward dismantlement at the Songhae test site.
What is North Korea doing? The benign interpretation is that such action is to be expected
Arms Control Wonk showed evidence of increased production at known missile facilities and the Wall Street Journal piled on with a headline that was self-consciously contrary to Trump’s recent boasts: “North Korean Submarine Development Signals Increased Nuclear Threat.”
What is North Korea doing? The benign interpretation is that such action is to be expected. Since no agreement has been reached, North Korea is not formally constrained.
Yet it is hard to avoid the more plausible interpretation that the regime is either trying to ramp up the pressure on the United States for concessions or is openly thumbing its nose at the administration’s ongoing preoccupation with denuclearization.
Is there a way forward? At the Jeju Forum, Philip Zelikow articulated a position that has long been held by many but is likely to gain steam: that the negotiations are highly unlikely to succeed if focused narrowly on the nuclear issue.
The reasons are simple: the nuclear agenda is one in which North Korea is called on to make virtually all of the concessions.
North Korea’s complete domination of the Singapore Summit agenda anticipated the objections to Pompeo’s visit. According to the summit document, the two parties did commit to an exchange of security assurances for denuclearization.
But the order of the bullet points suggested that North Korea’s conception of such a path went through significant improvement in relations with the U.S.—no doubt with some sanctions relief—and tangible progress toward a broader peace regime.
North Korea is too closely watched for Secretary Pompeo to put a positive spin on recent developments for very long. Trying to claim the return of remains as a Presidential win will hardly carry water either.
Sustaining the sanctions regime is the biggest diplomatic challenge the administration now faces
North Korea hawks are not the only political challenge. Democrats are ready to declare the emperor naked as well; see, for example, the bipartisan Menendez-Gardner legislation designed to articulate some public metrics for success.
Pompeo’s trip raised rather than lowered the North Korea risk. It is widely known that sustaining the sanctions regime is the biggest diplomatic challenge the administration now faces: South Korea would clearly like to do more on the North-South front, and China is openly backing off from sanctions enforcement.
The China trade war only adds another reason for Beijing to do so. If stymied in negotiations, it is easy to imagine an outmaneuvered President returning to “fire and fury” rhetoric, or worse yet, an ill-conceived attempt to break the logjam with military action.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. State Department
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