Even without hostility, North Korea diplomacy means mistrust and verify

Even without hostility, North Korea diplomacy means mistrust and verify
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Shortly after the conclusion of the historic summit between President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE and Kim Jong Un, North Korean media announced that Kim had accepted the president’s invitation to visit the White House. This commitment to continued head of state engagement is a key part of the foundation for the diplomatic engagement on which the Trump administration’s Korea policy now relies.   

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoImpeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill Five takeaways from ex-ambassador's dramatic testimony Pompeo: No US response ruled out in Hong Kong MORE launched immediately into post-summit shuttle diplomacy in the region, an immediate benefit of which should be a continued North Korean freeze on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing. In preparation for a White House meeting, Secretary Pompeo can focus on other deliverables, including starting the extraordinarily complicated and challenging process of building an inventory of North Korea’s dispersed and concealed weapons of mass destruction and ICBM stockpile.


He might also consider raising the possibility of establishing mutual interest sections in Pyongyang and Washington, which would enable continual support to our diplomacy, which has lowered bilateral tension between the United States and North Korea.  


Signing an official peace treaty to end the Korean War will be a formidable challenge.  Doing so without total denuclearization would risk legitimizing North Korea’s status as a nuclear state.

In the shadows of the summit were non-participants Russia and China, both of whom would like to remove U.S. troops from the region, halt U.S. military exercises, and reduce or eventually eliminate altogether the economic sanctions, which limit their economic predation of North Korea and enable U.S. negotiating leverage.

Trump’s decision during the summit to cancel the scheduled August military exercises with South Korea has generated controversy. The United States is obligated by treaty to defend South Korea. Routine joint training and military exercises integrate our militaries to maintain the high state of readiness, necessary to deter and potentially defend against a North Korean conventional attack.   

Having explained that the halt in military exercises is contingent upon North Korea’s participation in good-faith negotiations, Secretary Pompeo can emphasize to his North Korean interlocutors this was a reversible concession. Moreover, it might have reflected President Trump’s calculus of the internal dynamics of Kim’s regime. President Trump might believe Kim needs to counterbalance North Korea’s military “deep state,” which would oppose even the start of denuclearization negotiations.   

Kim outwardly projects strength, but his regime, like other autocracies, is inherently vulnerable to being overthrown from both the people whom Kim represses and his own coterie. Kim has used violent Stalinist-style purges viciously to control rivals in his corrupt regime. In February 2017, he murdered his half-brother Kim Jong Nam with the nerve agent VX in a Malaysia airport. In 2016, Kim executed two senior North Korean officials with an anti-aircraft gun. And just prior to the summit with President Trump, Kim removed three top generals from his inner circle and replaced them with younger officials loyal to him personally.

Realistically managing expectations, Secretary Pompeo emphasized the United States wanted North Korea to take “major nuclear disarmament steps” before the end of President Trump’s first term in 2021. The Panmunjom Declaration and recently concluded summit were broad statements of intent. Having pledged to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula more than 10 times in the past quarter-century, North Korea has a long history of double-dealing. Secretary Pompeo will be leading a mistrust-and-verify endeavor every step of the way.

President Trump’s emotional comments during the post-summit press conference about Otto Warmbier were a poignant reminder about North Korea’s horrific violations of human rights, which arguably make Kim and his regime subject to prosecution for crimes against humanity. Kim’s brutal torture and murder of Warmbier is a testament to why we must break the North Korean regime’s grip on its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

While denuclearization of the peninsula is, therefore, a distant goal, reduced open hostility and extensive diplomatic engagement are worthy immediate achievements.   Skeptics are right to question whether Kim Jong Un would ever cash in his nuclear and ICBM capability, which he believes guarantees regime security and status, in return for food, energy and economic integration within the vibrant region of Asia, where North Korea is such an obvious outlier.  

Kim might start the process of “working towards denuclearization” with no intention of ever fulfilling the U.S. policy of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. It remains to be seen whether, with Russian and Chinese support, Kim might seek to gain international recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state in return for halting provocative and dangerous nuclear and ICBM testing.  

Emulating China, Kim might proceed with economic reform within a highly restrictive political environment, which severely restricts human rights. In this construct, Kim would need to balance continued repression to prevent a Soviet or Arab Spring internal collapse with sufficient economic freedom to promote the growth, which is equally as important to Kim’s long-term regime survival.  

The seminal question might be whether Kim successfully imposes a phased and reciprocal process of negotiations, which relieves pressure on his free falling economy in opposition to Secretary Pompeo’s forceful statement of U.S. policy that economic sanctions will remain in full force until North Korea completes denuclearization.

Daniel Hoffman is a 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.