North Korea's explosive again, but Trump can still defuse it

North Korea's explosive again, but Trump can still defuse it
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Whether he realizes it or not, President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE has his hands full on foreign policy issues. He should consider which ones he needs to address, and which ones he might want to encourage to simmer down. He might want to start with the one into which he has put so much of his personal effort: North Korea.   

How much interest there is in continuing the nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea will be put to the test in the coming days.


News of the U.S. seizure of a North Korean ship used to sell coal in violation of international sanctions, coming on the heels of renewed North Korean testing of a new generation of shorter-range missiles off its coast, suggests that North Korea may go back on the front-burner crisis list. How much President Trump is paying attention is hard to say, but a return to brinkmanship seems very much to the liking of his national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonWhen will Biden declare America's 'One China, One Taiwan' policy? India's S-400 missile system problem Overnight Defense & National Security — GOP unhappy with Afghan vetting MORE, who makes no secret of his deep reservations about the diplomatic process with North Korea.  

Bolton and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Psaki: Sexism contributes to some criticism of Harris Mnuchin, Pompeo mulled plan to remove Trump after Jan. 6: book MORE have been busy in recent weeks. While allies and partners looked on with growing concern, without much encouragement from the president, Bolton and Pompeo have ratcheted up the situation with Iran and sought (unsuccessfully so far) to close in on overthrowing the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela. And if that were not enough, rockets from Gaza once again have been lighting the skies over southern Israel.   

For a president who prides himself on managing crises without drawing the United States into a conflict — a criticism he has often leveled at his immediate predecessors — Trump doesn’t appear to be getting much help from his main foreign policy team, whose attitudes suggest the more crises, the better.

In North Korea, there is no question that Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea bans leather coats after Kim starts new fashion trend Belarus and Russia must resolve the migrant crisis on their own North Korea's Kim makes first public appearance in month MORE has been frustrated of late with the talks, and in particular with the reluctance of the Trump team to contemplate any early return to summitry. The North Koreans seem to have focused much of their ire on Bolton and Pompeo, suggesting the president should turn to someone else for advice, or perhaps just trust his own instincts and meet alone with Kim to reach a deal.  

Trump wisely has not jettisoned his team, but he also has not given Bolton and Pompeo anything like a full-throated endorsement, the absence of which might be encouraging the North Koreans to keep trying.  

The problem from the start, however, remains that the North Koreans never have indicated any resolve to denuclearize along the lines the United States has suggested — that is, to initiate systematic denuclearization, starting with a listing of its programs and a schedule for their dismantlement, in return for sanctions relief.

For his part, President Trump has refused to go the route of a step-by-step approach, preferring the showmanship of a grand bargain in which the two countries solve the issues in one fell swoop. The problem is that North Korea never has embraced such an approach, and has made it clear it is not about to change now. In the failed Hanoi summit, North Korea posed a bold plan to dismantle its main nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, the site of a known enrichment site and North Korea’s only reactor. The U.S. side balked at its lack of clarity or detail as to what and how the sites were to be abandoned, and at the breadth of the North Korean demand for United Nations sanctions relief.

So far, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea have supported Trump’s approach to North Korea, despite Kim’s efforts to look for divisions among them, a time-honored North Korea strategy. But if a “maximum pressure” campaign — that includes the unprecedented seizing of vessels — is going to work and not be thwarted by other powers, Trump must show those countries and the North Koreans that he remains interested in the diplomatic track.

He could start by indicating that the United States is looking carefully at the North Korean offer of Yongbyon as a useful early step in the process. It appears that the summary dismissal of Yongbyon dismantlement is what may be convincing the North Koreans to return to missile tests.  

President Trump has been — for him — oddly quiet about the buildup of these foreign policy crises, saying almost nothing about North Korea, Iran, Venezuela or the flare-up of violence in southern Israel and the Gaza Strip. But at a minimum, he will have to make some decisions about which one he wants to see simmer down, because he can’t handle all of them simultaneously.      

Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador including as U.S. ambassador to South Korea in 2004-05. He also served as State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs 2005-09 and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.