North Korea talks draw fresh scrutiny after canceled meeting

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President Trump’s decision Friday to abruptly put a hold on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea is stoking concerns among foreign policy experts that Trump is pulling back on diplomacy in the push for denuclearization.

Trump, who has struggled to point to significant achievements from his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un two months ago, accused Pyongyang on Friday of dragging its feet on efforts to dismantle its nuclear program.

A high-level visit to North Korea, Trump wrote on Twitter, is not appropriate at “this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”


“I think this was a mistake,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for National Interest and a contributor to The Hill.

“They should have went to Pyongyang and really tested Kim’s intentions. Now, we all wait for North Korea’s reaction.”

Paul Kawika Martin, a senior director at the largest U.S. peace and disarmament organization Peace Action, said canceling negotiations won’t help the two countries work through the impasse and secure more significant progress.

“The fact that the Trump administration has issues with how North Korea is handling negotiations is a reason to continue talking, not a reason to kick the can farther down the road,” Martin said in a statement after Trump’s announcement.

The announcement came as a surprise to many, arriving just a day after Pompeo named Stephen Biegun — a senior executive with the Ford Motor Company — to be the State Department’s special representative for North Korea.

Pompeo had said that Biegun was to travel with him to the scheduled meeting in North Korea.

Pompeo was to make his fourth visit to the country to continue talks following Trump and Kim’s historic summit in June, at which the two leaders signed a joint statement that committed Pyongyang “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The document included no specifics on how denuclearization would be achieved, though Trump boasted after the meeting that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat.” 

Trump has since been reluctant to admit that North Korea’s denuclearization is not going as planned, making Friday’s tweet a rare concession.

Still, canceling Pompeo’s trip is not likely to help matters, Kawika argued.

“The zig-zag of making a smart announcement yesterday of a new special representative to North Korea, then canceling next week’s meetings only puts more chaos in a situation that needs stability,” he said.

Kazianis said he assumes Trump believes that canceling talks — just as he did prior to the June summit — “will shake the North into some concessions.” 

But he said that isn’t likely, “especially as Kim draws closer to China.” 

Trump in the same series of tweets on Friday highlighted that closeness, accusing Beijing of not “helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were,” pointing to “our much tougher Trading stance” with the nation as the cause of the rift.

The Treasury Department on Wednesday targeted a Chinese shipping firm and its Singapore-based affiliate for violating financial sanctions meant to cut off foreign aid to North Korea’s economy.

The penalties are part of the Treasury Department’s latest move to punish Pyongyang’s economic benefactors in an effort to further pressure the North to dismantle its nuclear stockpile.

“Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved,” Trump wrote Friday.

Still, others point to possible talks behind the scenes that could have upset the planned meeting.

Retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who served as a U.S. adviser to the Second Republic of Korea Army, said the timing of Trump’s announcement was “definitely very curious,” but speculated that the the U.S. wasn’t getting what it wanted in conversations between midlevel officials.

“I can only imagine that whatever Pompeo was going to ask for, the intermediaries probably said, ‘hey, we’re not going to give that,’ or ‘we’re going to demand this,’ and he said, ‘OK, then we’re not even going to go.’ ”

To cancel the trip altogether is the better option, Davis maintained, as “it would certainly be even worse for our side if we sent Pompeo and [Biegun] over there and then they come back empty handed or something even worse, where they get repudiated or something public.”

Pompeo and Biegun were to attempt to restart stalled negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, talks that have faltered over disagreements about how quickly North Korea must denuclearize and a possible peace treaty, among other concessions.

“The issues are tough, and they will be tough to resolve,” Biegun said Thursday when he was named to his new role.

“But the president has created an opening, and it’s one that we must take by seizing every possible opportunity to realize the vision for a peaceful future for the people of North Korea.”

North Korea has pressed for a decreased U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, and wants the U.S. to agree to a declaration of peace. Such a declaration would formally end the Korean War, which was fought between 1950 and 1953. Instead, there is an armistice that acts as a cease-fire between military forces in the North and South.

The nation also wants the United States to lift economic sanctions, as well as offer other monetary benefits should it concede its nuclear prowess.

The discord was reflected in Pompeo’s latest visit in July, where he did not meet with Kim. Afterwards, the North accused the U.S. of using “gangster-like” tactics to put pressure on its government.

And since the June meeting, U.S. officials have acknowledged that there have been no public signs of denuclearization.

Pompeo himself told lawmakers in July that North Korea is still producing the material necessary to make nuclear bombs. He added, however, that North Korea talks are a process of “patient diplomacy.”

The administration has sought to tamp down on any talk of animosity, however, with White House national security adviser John Bolton on Sunday lauding Pompeo as having done “extraordinary follow-up diplomacy after the Singapore meeting.”

The administration expects “that’s going to resume in the near future,” Bolton added.

Davis said the way ahead now rests on the U.S. being “able to give up something in order to get something.”

“If we want something as big as denuclearization, we have to be willing to give something big. I think a good first step is let’s work towards a peace treaty.”

Kazianis agreed, and said the administration should offer a peace declaration, but stipulate that it is the last concession Kim will get.

“If at that point the North still will not give on their nuclear program then Team Trump will clearly have to go back to the drawing board,” he said.

Tags Donald Trump Mike Pompeo

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