Pompeo no-go: Too early to pull the plug with North Korea

On Friday, President Trump threw out another surprise via Twitter with the sudden cancelation of a trip to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The president’s three-part tweet cited the lack of “sufficient progress” concerning North Korea’s denuclearization, pointed the finger at China for North Korean intransigence because of the U.S.-China trade war, and sent his “warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim.”

What to make of this latest round of policy by tweets? It has been no surprise that denuclearizing North Korea is a slow process, if it is even possible at all. While I remain highly skeptical that North Korea ultimately will be willing to give up its nuclear weapons, it is worth the effort to try and it is too soon to break off talks. Perhaps this is a negotiating ploy designed to pressure North Korea and China, but it is not all clear that this is the case or that it will be successful.

{mosads}But here’s the rub. South Korean leaders would remind us that the order of the provisions in the declarations that came from the North-South and Trump-Kim Jong Un summits is crucial. Both documents first address the need to reduce tensions and improve relations, with denuclearization to follow. The United States insists on a front-loaded process that expects Pyongyang to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization much earlier.


North Korea will not denuclearize up front — no state in its situation would do that. But would North Korea be willing to denuclearize if the United States provided concessions? Is Washington willing to test this possibility, and what concessions would it be willing to make? The answers to these questions are not at all clear.

One of the possible deals that has been floated, and may have been the focus of the canceled Pompeo meeting, would have North Korea providing an inventory of its nuclear weapons program. Establishing a baseline — to determine the extent of the North Korean program and to be able to measure future North Korean actions — is essential. A declaration also would provide a marker to determine Pyongyang’s sincerity in moving forward on denuclearization.  

In return, the United States would provide a peace declaration that ends the Korean War. With the difficulties and complexities of concluding a formal peace treaty, the declaration would have likely been a reassurance that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea and seeks to maintain peace between the two countries. North Korea has been adamant that it needs a peace declaration to proceed with denuclearization.

Indeed, how can we expect North Korea to denuclearize without one? To obtain an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear weapons in return for a peace declaration is well worth it. Moreover, there is a good deal of speculation that the North-South summit in September will move in this direction.

The canceled meeting also puts South Korea in a difficult spot. Despite the stalled U.S.-North Korea process, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pushed full speed ahead on his engagement strategy. Believing that the starting point to denuclearization is to first improve relations, Moon has implemented a variety of measures, including family reunions, military talks, follow-on summit meetings, and sports exchanges. If the U.S.-North Korea track stalls entirely, that will be a serious disconnect in policy between Washington and Seoul.

What about the China connection? China has been an important element of “maximum pressure,” given its economic ties with North Korea. For a time, it appeared China was enforcing United Nations sanctions, but there are many signs now that enforcement is starting to wane. If the Trump administration is waiting for a resolution of U.S.-China trade disputes before resuming talks, it could be a long time — and a missed opportunity. All of this is an important reminder of the reality that U.S.-China relations are complicated and interconnected. If the United States is going to take on China over trade, it better be ready for pushback in other areas.

But North Korean intransigence is not a result of China’s actions. Kim Jong Un will pursue his own interests, and is more than capable of stalling the process on his own, if he chooses to do so. For the first six years of his reign, he was more than willing to ignore Chinese admonitions. There are limits to what China can and will do with North Korea, and resolving U.S.-China trade issues is unlikely to make a big difference in denuclearizing North Korea.

Let’s hope it’s not too long before U.S.-North Korea dialogue resumes, but be sure to temper your expectations when it does.

Terence Roehrig is professor of national security affairs and director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College. He was a research fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard University and a past president of the Association of Korean Political Studies. He has published several books, including “Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella: Deterrence After the Cold War” with Columbia University Press. Follow him on Twitter @tjroehrig.

[Note: The views expressed in this report are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Tags Donald Trump Kim Jong-un Mike Pompeo North Korea–South Korea relations North Korea–United States summit Nuclear program of North Korea South Korea–United States relations

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