More than symbolic gestures needed in US-North Korea talks

More than symbolic gestures needed in US-North Korea talks
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Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump fires back at Graham over Iran criticism Overnight Defense: GOP wary of action on Iran | Pence says US 'locked and loaded' to defend allies | Iran's leader rules out talks with US Republicans wary of US action on Iran MORE on Sunday is scheduled to be in Pyongyang to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The summit has the potential to reinvigorate U.S.-North Korea diplomatic negotiations that have stalled since Pompeo’s July trip to Pyongyang and abruptly-canceled August trip. It also keeps the United States in lockstep with South Korea, following the promising inter-Korean summit held in September.

But what can the United States hope to achieve from meeting with Kim now, besides preserving diplomacy? The issues underlying the current impasse between the two countries are no more resolved than they were last summer. Given the stakes, a critical assessment of the United States’ negotiating position with Pyongyang, and its consequence, is necessary.

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Despite the seemingly cordial relations between President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE and Kim, North Korea and the United States do not trust each other, their definitions of what “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” means are different, and neither side agrees to the other’s opening negotiating position. The Trump administration’s position remains unchanged: there will be no sanctions relief until North Korea fully and finally denuclearizes (though Trump has signaled that he has relaxed his timeline for North Korea’s denuclearization from earlier this year). North Korea has made no firm commitments to unilateral denuclearization and insists that normalization of the U.S.-North Korea relationship must come before Pyongyang can reasonably disarm.

Given these constraints, it is not clear what the United States and North Korea can offer each other this time around. Prior to Pompeo’s announced visit, speculation had been building that the United States would be willing to make a declaration on the end of the Korean War in exchange for a declaration on North Korea’s nuclear facilities and sites — a “declaration for declaration.”  South Korea has suggested North Korea could dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facility as an appropriate exchange. Such a move would be short of removing sanctions, but it would signal good faith and lay the foundation for normalized relations.

However, on Oct. 1, the day before the State Department announced Sunday’s meeting, North Korea’s central news agency, KCNA, tempered any U.S. expectation that Pyongyang would be overly enthusiastic about such a deal. Specifically, the “commentary” article said that “[an end of war declaration] is absolutely not a gift from someone to another, and far from being a bargaining object that can be traded for our denuclearization measure…”

If neither side appears to have budged on its respective stance, what will Pompeo and Kim talk about? When he canceled Pompeo’s August trip, President Trump signaled that the United States wasn’t willing to hold meetings that don’t result in substantive progress on North Korea’s denuclearization. North Korea, for its part, has had a similar attitude; talks for the sake of talks aren’t valuable to Pyongyang. The KCNA statement makes the North’s position clear that an end of war declaration is not sufficient to move the needle on denuclearization the way the United States may have hoped; they know it is a symbolic gesture from an administration that has proven it is willing to back out of U.S. treaty commitments with other countries.

The North Koreans have been clear: They won’t disarm for nothing. North Korean interlocutors have consistently reinforced this message since the Singapore summit. The United States’ adherence to a negotiation position that only offers negative incentives for North Korea — i.e., continued sanctions — is becoming counterproductive to the overall U.S. strategy in Northeast Asia.

Dynamics on the Korean Peninsula have changed since Trump and Kim met in June. The pressure campaign, which the U.S. administration continues to credit with bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, relied on participation from South Korea, China and Russia. But in recent months, these countries have been backing away from full implementation.

South Korea’s Moon Jae-in is eager to move forward with limited economic and military cooperation projects to improve inter-Korean relations agreed to at the September summit. Similarly, China and Russia no longer strictly enforce international sanctions, allowing North Korea a degree of economic relief and flexibility. Additionally, improved inter-Korean relations create opportunities for Moscow and Beijing to pursue their own economic interests and develop their relations with South Korea.

As these regional powers move on from the international pressure campaign, North Korea is less susceptible to U.S. coercive negotiating tactics. While the United States keeps its feet firmly planted, its position in Northeast Asia is in danger of being undermined. If the United States appears to be obstructing inter-Korean peace by opposing Seoul’s plans for cooperation with Pyongyang, the South Korean government and people may begin to question the U.S. role on the Korean Peninsula and the value of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

This latest U.S.-North Korean summit is an opportunity to demonstrate that the United States remains willing to engage in diplomacy. But right now, a summit with lackluster results, that only prolongs the diplomatic process, actually benefits Kim Jong Un. For diplomacy to have the intended, long-term effect with North Korea and better position the United States in an evolving Northeast Asia, the United States will have to find a way to mix positive incentives with pressure.

Sarah Vogler is a North Korea analyst in the Strategy, Policy, Plans and Programs Division at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, VA. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of CNA or any of its sponsors.