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North Korea is everybody’s problem, so Trump must change his approach

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Go to a campaign event for President Trump and anyone will tell you: “Oh, North Korea? The president solved that a long time ago.” Fact-free zones are not hard to find at political rallies, but the view that three summits with the North Korean leader have solved the North Korean threat is especially worrisome and naive — and North Korea hasn’t even delivered to its promised “Christmas gift” yet.

What North Korea is vowing to send to the United States in December is anyone’s guess at this point. Another intercontinental missile, perhaps, but this time an upgraded one with new generation solid-fuel engines? Perhaps a submarine-launched ballistic missile is being boxed and sent special delivery. Whatever it is, it won’t be wrapped in Christmas paper with a bow tied around it.  

For almost two years — that is, since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s 2018 New Year’s message and subsequent meeting with a delegation from the South Korean government in which he suggested that improved U.S. relations were a priority of his — Trump’s strategy of offering public flattery and indicating he has had nothing less than a man-crush on Kim is not working, nor keeping us safe. 

Dangling goodies in front of the North Koreans is nothing new. What the president has been suggesting, after all, is the proposition that North Korea could have a much better future without nuclear weapons than with them. But Trump’s negotiating approach has been starkly different than in the past. During the runup to the first of the three summit meetings, rather than work on tightly sequenced steps toward denuclearization rewarded with increments of sanctions relief, his staff instead put together a music video presentation that purported to demonstrate all the good things that could happen in one of the world’s most backward economies, if only North Korea would come to its senses, make the right decision and turn away from the dark side.  

Diplomacy and showmanship sometimes come together. But usually, music videos aside, the end looks more like two marathoners with wane smiles, gasping for air. 

It does not appear that Kim is contemplating any change. What he appears to be doing is abusing the U.S. go-it-alone strategy to ask the world for immediate sanctions relief, a sort of Christmas initiative shopping. What, one might ask, is North Korea prepared to offer? The North Koreans did propose to decommission the main nuclear facility at Yongbyon at the Hanoi Summit in March 2019. But when the U.S. asked for details, the North Koreans failed to respond, saying only that “you will be happy,” and demanded broad sanctions relief.   

Could putting Yongbyon on the table have been a start to negotiations? To listen to the U.S. and  North Korean negotiators is to suggest they attended different meetings. In fact, U.S. negotiators have been tight-lipped about what, if any, interim offers they have made to the North Koreans.  Trump has suggested that what differentiates his approach from those of his predecessors is that he will not go down the road of incrementalism for the sake of incrementalism. Dismantling Yongbyon, in the absence of addressing what appear to be many other nuclear sites, would have fit the definition of incrementalism.  

Did the U.S. offer anything in reply? Perhaps narrow sanctions relief in response to what appears to have amounted to a narrow denuclearization offer? Apparently, there was no follow-up. By all accounts, from the last working-level meeting near Stockholm in October, the North Koreans were not impressed by what the U.S. side brought in their suitcases and stormed out, vowing not to talk again.  

One of the downsides of the Trump administration’s approach to deal with the North Koreans one-on-one, and leave other interested states trying to peer through the keyhole, is that in the absence of any detailed understanding of the U.S. position, others do not have a sense of how to close ranks and back the U.S. approach.  

The architecture of Trump’s diplomacy is fundamentally wrong. North Korea is everybody’s problem, not just that of the United States.

Inevitably, we are seeing at the United Nations that both the Russians and Chinese are calling for more flexibility on the part of the U.S., an inevitable plea given that the U.S. has kept these countries on the margins. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has not visited China for over a year. His last visit in the fall of 2018 left him furious with his Chinese counterpart Weng Yi for rebuking him in front of television cameras over a speech Vice President Mike Pence delivered days before about the danger of China. Those awkward moments happen more frequently in diplomacy than they should, but given the importance of China on North Korea, perhaps Secretary Pompeo might strive harder for more resiliency to such momentary setbacks. In any event, he hasn’t been to China since.

Often when things don’t go well with North Korea, criticism turns to the question of process.  Certainly, the Trump administration, with its preference for trapeze acts and dubious preparatory efforts — not to mention failure to coordinate in any meaningful way with other interested countries — deserves this criticism. These blunders are in keeping with the colossal failure of this administration to articulate the relationship between strategy and goals, or to put in motion the machinery of a complex foreign policy structure. Tweets, it has been observed more than once, are no substitute for serious governance. 

For the American public, whether 40 percent, or on a good stock market day somewhat more than that, to accept that this is an effective approach speaks to the yawning gap between the need for professional governance and a public, a large part of which has come to accept statecraft as a form of entertainment rather than as a serious means to a serious end.     

The fact remains that North Korea has utterly failed to follow through on any commitments to denuclearize — indeed, of late has even put forward lower-level officials to say that denuclearization is off the table. These are not the words of an interlocutor who understands what is at stake, or even what is demanded, not to speak of any sense of partnership or respect for the opinions of others.   

North Korea continues its push for deliverable nuclear weapons with impunity and it is high time the Trump administration accepts that this issue is by no means in the “win” column. The United States needs to engage partners and allies for the purpose of devising a common strategy. It needs to engage the international community, not just as recipients of after-action reports but rather to put together a strategy that shows there will be costs — direct and indirect — to affect North Korea’s calculation.  

The Trump administration cannot pull a rabbit out of a hat on North Korea unless it is prepared to listen to others and work with others, and coordinate with others to put that rabbit in the hat. 

Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador including as U.S. ambassador to South Korea in 2004-05. He also served as the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs 2005-09 and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.

Tags Denuclearization of Korean Peninsula Donald Trump Kim Jong Un Mike Pence Mike Pompeo Sanctions against North Korea US-North Korea relations

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