Pompeo to North Korea proves Trump follows his own playbook

Pompeo to North Korea proves Trump follows his own playbook
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How should the revelation that CIA director and secretary of State nominee Mike PompeoMike PompeoChina: US military presence in South China Sea a threat to peace, stability White House installs new leadership at federally-funded international broadcasters US carrier group enters South China Sea amid tensions between China, Taiwan MORE met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un be understood? Clearly, the Trump administration is prepared to throw out the old playbook in dealing with the rogue state.

And why not? The past decades of North Korea policy have been a failure: Kim has nuclear weapons and many types of ballistic missiles that can devastate the Asia-Pacific, and has proliferated weapons of mass destruction to a devil’s den of countries without paying a single meaningful price. A new approach is needed, but there are many potential minefields that, if not carefully managed, can leave the United States worse off for holding a summit meeting.

The Trump administration succeeded in scaring the Kim regime to the negotiating table. Kim was spooked by constant allied military pressure and credible threats of military force against him. The array of sanctions and the campaign of international isolation have acted as a noose around his neck, and Kim wants to loosen that noose. His only way out is through diplomacy.

However, the potential trouble ahead is that this meeting is what the Kim dynasty has always wanted and has been “gaming out” for many years. Pyongyang’s playbook is now well-known: Draw out negotiations for as long as possible while demanding a peace treaty and other concessions, recognition as a nuclear state, and the normalization of relations with the United States. Until recently, North Korean’s chastened patrons — the Chinese — went along with the Trump campaign of pressure against Kim, themselves fearing that Trump was capable of anything.

But now the Chinese will support any negotiations that may break the U.S. alliance with South Korea. Kim and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, find themselves in alignment once again in seeking to remove U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula and gradually “decouple” Seoul and Washington. As it does this, North Korea and China will aim to isolate Japan as the last remaining place in the Asia-Pacific where U.S. troops are permanently stationed. Kim and Xi know exactly what they want and will use these negotiations as a platform to achieve these goals.

Washington must do the same. It wants complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, an improved human rights situation, and an end to nuclear proliferation. At the negotiating table, President TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE will quickly gauge how serious Kim is about denuclearization if he confronts Kim with all that he knows about North Korea’s weapons program and offers to send U.S. cargo planes to remove those weapons from the country as soon as possible. North Korea has already received many security assurances from the United States, but if Pyongyang agrees to these conditions, Kim can receive another one.

The summit can serve other purposes as well. The United States can make clear to Kim what the United States can do about North Korean proliferation and other provocations. Kim likely does not receive accurate information from his cowed national security establishment. North Korea simply does not know all the damage the United States can inflict.

Washington thus has an opportunity to delineate exactly where maximum pressure will lead: It can send the North Korean economy into shock and remove the sources of Kim’s criminal revenue. The United States should identify and reveal all it knows about about Pyongyang’s slave-labor camps and discuss in detail the findings of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry of Human Rights in North Korea, which chronicles the regime’s abuses. In bringing up the entire portfolio of Kim’s wrongs, Washington can put both Kim and Xi on the defensive — indeed, the United States needs to maintain the initiative — and send the message to Kim’s delegation that the world now knows about their crimes.

This is all to say that direct talks can be part of a strategy of coercive diplomacy. If Kim balks at immediate denuclearization, the United States can increase the pressure even more until he is ready. Trump and his team are tough-minded pragmatists capable of hard-headed diplomacy and decisive action. Indeed, they should be ready with a set of new initiatives to pressure both China and North Korea, should the summit not bear fruit.

But Team USA is going up against a regime that has been on a roll in outwitting the United States across many administrations and is supported by a China that wants the United States out of Asia. The key to success is to push for immediate denuclearization while preparing for a long-term parallel strategy of coercive diplomacy against North Korea and continued pushback against Chinese moves to break U.S. alliances in Asia.

However, if North Korea succeeds in drawing out the talks with promises of future denuclearization, engaging Washington in endless fights about verification or demands for concessions without any immediate actions in return, Washington will have lost important time that otherwise could have been spent strengthening the coalition of pressure.

Dan Blumenthal is director of Asian studies and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He served as a senior director at the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004, was a commissioner and vice chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission from 2006 to 2012, and has been a distinguished visiting professor at the U.S. Naval War College since 2014. He is the coauthor of “An Awkward Embrace: The United States and China in the 21st Century.”