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Will Pompeo make progress for Trump on his North Korea trip?

Anna Moneymaker

Back in April, I was wrapping up a trip to Seoul and about to depart for the airport. Surprisingly, my vehicle got caught behind the motorcade of President Moon Jae In, who was heading to the first summit between his country South Korea and North Korea in 11 years with young dictator Kim Jong Un at the truce village in Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone.

Eventually we separated, but not before I saw the meticulous attention Moon paid to arranging stops along the way to the summit to court South Korean public opinion. Mingling with veterans groups, separated family members and other interest groups, his stops provided plenty of footage that prepared the way for his landslide victory in the local elections in June. Moon portrayed himself as a peacemaker and unifier who knows how to manage the threat from North Korea. At the summit, the two leaders provided plenty of video access to their various settings.

{mosads}This weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will return to North Korea for the fourth time. His previous visit got bad reviews from the state controlled media of North Korea, and a follow up planned visit did not materialize in August because President Trump canceled it, citing insufficient progress on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Now that the trip is rescheduled just a little over a month later, something must have happened to make Trump see it as worthwhile.

During the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York earlier this month, Pompeo did meet with the North Korean foreign minister, something the North Korean media curiously excluded from its coverage. Yet by the weekend, Trump told a rally he and the North Korean leader Kim “fell in love.” The State Department then announced that Pompeo would travel to the region this weekend. Unconfirmed reports circulated of another summit between Trump and Kim in the near future, and the Pompeo visit may be part of the plan to make that happen.

The first summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore in June produced conflicting accounts of what was said and agreed. Trump took credit for reducing tensions and is said to have promised an end to the state of hostilities with North Korea. The two leaders signed a declaration to establish new relations between the United States and North Korea, build a stable peace regime, a commitment from North Korea to work toward the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, and the repatriation of the remains of American soldiers. But critics found it lacked concrete moves to denuclearization, the ultimate goal of the summit.

Has Pompeo made a breakthrough with North Korea that he can use to anchor the next summit with Trump? That seems likely. Will the first steps be taken toward verifying and removing the nuclear weapons North Korea holds along with the missiles to deliver them? That now seems unlikely.

Since the change of leaders in Seoul last year, there has been a gap in the approaches of allies South Korea and the United States in how to deal with North Korea. The United States has asked at the outset for a declaration of all nuclear facilities and sites along with access to them, which North Korea will not give. Moon has instead been placing an emphasis on confidence building measures first, to be followed only later by the more difficult steps of denuclearization and verification.

Along these lines, North Korea invited journalists to observe the destruction of tunnels leading to a nuclear weapons test site, promised to dismantle a missile test facility, and began removal of landmines along the demilitarized zone. None of this has diminished the menace of its nuclear weapons, but it has shifted the tenor of government statements away from conflict and toward peacemaking. Trump talked of “fire and fury” last year, but today claims he “fell in love” with the North Korean leader.

My experience in Seoul earlier this year now seems likely to replay itself, only this time with Trump producing the visuals to influence his voters in the United States in place of Moon doing the same in South Korea. We should not be surprised to see Air Force One descend on Pyongyang, followed by a declaration of the end of the Korean War in exchange for a promise to dismantle the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, as suggested this week by South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha.

Declaring the Korean War over is a low cost gesture from the United States. Dismantling the facilities in Yongbyon is not nothing, but it does not address the nuclear weapons that North Korea has assembled and stored elsewhere. Yet this is likely to be good enough to perpetuate the impression that progress is being made on the Korean Peninsula before the American midterm elections just one month away.

Douglas Paal is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was previously vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International and is a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan. He served as a senior staff member of the National Security Council under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush between 1986 and 1993.

Tags Diplomacy Donald Trump Global Affairs Mike Pompeo North Korea United States

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