North Korea and the art of diplomatic brinkmanship

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Recent days have witnessed a whirlwind of activity in U.S. relations with North Korea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told congressional leaders on May 24 that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “ghosted us” by refusing to allow meetings between the teams responsible for planning the June 12 Singapore summit. President Trump then canceled the summit because of North Korea’s hostile comments, including comments directed at Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton, as well as skepticism that Pyongyang was truly committed to denuclearization.  

North Korea’s response was diplomatic, rather than bellicose. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said the North is “willing to give the U.S. time and opportunities to reconsider holding the summit.” Kim lauded President Trump for “having made the bold decision … for such a crucial event as the summit.”

{mosads}North Korea is one of greatest challenges for the U.S. intelligence community. Having served as a senior clandestine services officer at CIA, responsible for collecting intelligence from the hardest targets, I expect President Trump and his team are relying on our intelligence experts to determine Kim’s motivation for applying diplomatic brinkmanship to the planned summit before retreating to a conciliatory approach when Trump called his bluff.  


Starting in January, Kim softened his outward engagement in the region and with the United States. He sent his sister for a goodwill tour during the Olympics in South Korea, met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, released three U.S. hostages and, hours before Trump canceled the summit, dismantled three of the four tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. North Korea claimed the fourth tunnel, which had been used for its first nuclear test in 2006, already had been destroyed. There were only journalist observers, rather than nuclear experts to verify the site’s destruction.  

During the early stages of bilateral engagement, then-CIA Director Pompeo held private negotiations with Kim Jong Un that were not subjected to public scrutiny. Preparation for the summit, however, required overt diplomatic engagement and presented North Korea with an opportunity to posture for strategic advantage by probing U.S. red lines.

Through decades of failed U.S. policy, North Korean leaders developed an expectation that sanctions relief would result simply for showing up to negotiate an agreement, which they would later break. The Trump administration has rightly forsaken this approach. The president’s letter and accompanying public statement made it clear: the U.S. military deterrent and sanctions would remain in full force as long as North Korea did not commit to negotiating in good faith.  

North Korea’s hermit kingdom is arguably the world’s most closed country, with a near-bankrupt economy resulting from its national security ideology of juche (self-reliance) and songun (military-first allocation of national resources). Kim also has pursued the policy of byngjin, which involves developing North Korea’s economy while simultaneously maintaining its nuclear weapons program.

Kim is acutely aware of the risks of his self-imposed isolation and the value of nuclear weapons for ensuring his dynastic regime security and survival. If he is the rational actor we assess him to be, then Kim would be extremely wary of eliminating the deterrent he believes made fellow autocrats Saddam Hussein and  Muammar Gaddafi vulnerable to regime change.

For the United States, this means we should have realistic expectations as we continue to manage the threat from North Korea’s chemical/biological programs, nuclear weapons, and ICBM capability. Diplomatic engagement will be a long haul, with expected twists and turns going forward, as well as lack of immediate gratification for either side.

The question is whether the latest conciliatory statement from North Korea’s vice foreign minister in response to Trump’s summit cancellation is truly a step forward, toward diplomacy, or another North Korean feint that will, in Secretary Pompeo’s words, result in reverting to “situation normal.”

Daniel Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA.

Tags Donald Trump Kim dynasty Kim Jong-un Mike Pence Mike Pompeo North Korea North Korea–United States summit

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