Last Friday, President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE abruptly canceled Secretary Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea — what would have been the secretary’s fourth Pyongyang visit to persuade the Kim regime to show some good-faith steps toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program. Some policy experts have pointed out that this decision was indicative of a lack of coordination on Washington’s North Korea game plan.
The president’s decision also had the South Korean government rattled, since Seoul is bent on bringing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) issue to some kind of demonstrable closure. Amidst the momentum on inter-Korean economic, recreational and cultural cooperation ventures — the two Koreas just wrapped up the long-awaited reunion of separated families last week — Washington’s snap decision to cancel the high-level visit seems to have sprinkled some anxiety among Blue House officials.
But let’s think. Remember last Thursday, when State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told the news media that Pompeo’s trip did not guarantee a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un? In her words: “We have no plans for a meeting of that sort. … We have no expectations of meeting with Chairman Kim.”
Additionally, when asked why the secretary would continue to go to Pyongyang if he is not going to be able to meet with the DPRK’s key decision-maker, Nauert stressed the importance of “regularizing these meetings,” describing these trips as a way to normalize conversations between Washington and Pyongyang. Nauert also asked for patience, noting the issue is going to take some time to resolve. “I know you all want to speed up these things.”
That Washington decided to cancel the secretary’s trip to Pyongyang might not be such a terrible move. We ask ourselves, with no guarantee that he would be meeting with Kim, and presumably with no concrete agenda or objective of the visit, just what would Pompeo achieve through a fourth visit to North Korea?
After months of stalled movement on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program, and with indications that the DPRK continues to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities, a post-trip report declaring yet another unsubstantiated significant progress in U.S.-DPRK relations and expressing Washington’s confidence in Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization and peace-building — with no credible and verifiable action on North Korea’s part to back up this assertion — just would not suffice at this point. The trip would have underscored Washington’s failure to reach a credible denuclearization deal and Pyongyang’s upper hand.
It has been four months since the inter-Korean talks; slightly over two months since the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. And verily, there has not been much progress in getting the Kim regime on track to denuclearization. With the exception of the various inter-Korean engagement activities — joint sports competitions, talks of economic cooperation, and potentially even easing South Korea’s military posture toward the North — neither Seoul nor Washington has much to show in the way of credible progress on the DPRK nuclear issue.
And with the leaders of both countries having initially declared confidence that this decades-long dilemma would be resolved by their hands — credulous public or not — the self-set expectation leaves much room for criticism and pressure in the administrations of both Moon Jae-In and President Trump.
We can talk about timeline, since there is some merit to speculating what implicit deadlines could be pressuring Washington or Seoul’s decision-making. For example, South Korean pundits speculate that the United States might be pressed to make a move on North Korea before the November midterm elections. Conversely, some Korea-watchers in Washington speculate that the Moon administration is operating under a deadline within Moon’s term to deliver a milestone achievement with North Korea. But fixate on the timeline, and we will find ourselves in a (no-)deal that may have repercussions on regional security, relations with our allies and, of course, reducing the North Korean threat.
We may also wonder who’s winning the current battle round and our overall negotiations with North Korea. The answer depends to an extent on how we define success when it comes to dealing with the DPRK. Admittedly, we have prevented Washington from going to war with Pyongyang; North Korea, despite its ongoing nuclear and missile development, has not directly threatened the United States or South Korea; we are still “talking to” the North Koreans, albeit sporadically. On the flip side, some may argue that, understanding the Kim regime’s rationale and the DPRK’s existential purpose of maintaining its nuclear program, as well as the political, security, and symbolic threat these weapons pose to the United States and our regional allies, North Korea’s nuclear program remains intact and talks aren’t going anywhere.
At this point, though, speculating on a timeline or discussing the winners and losers in the stalemate with North Korea adds little to a resolution. More important is a firmly-rooted and resolute North Korea strategy. It goes without saying that a waffling U.S. stance leaves much room for the DPRK to exploit; this also does not breed confidence or sobriety on the part of the South Korean government when talking to Washington about the North Korea issue. For the Moon administration, anxious to make express progress with the DPRK, an inconsistent United States could signal weak determination and an opportunity for Seoul to — in the words of President Moon — take the driver’s seat and hastily steer the course of negotiations with the Kim regime.
We knew that the North Korea issue won’t be solved overnight — or in months. And we know that the DPRK is in this for the long haul. No more knee-jerk decisions. Focus instead on planning, articulating and consistently executing an enduring North Korea strategy.
Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.