Doubts grow over North Korea despite Trump confidence

Doubts grow over North Korea despite Trump confidence
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE said Monday he was confident that North Korea would uphold an agreement to denuclearize, downplaying signs the country is pouring cold water on a deal.

Trump also blamed China for statements from North Korea criticizing the United States’s demands as “gangster-like,” arguing it was putting pressure on its longtime ally.

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“I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake,” Trump tweeted. “We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea. China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not!”

Beijing has been accused of playing spoiler before, with some speculating the rhetoric from Pyongyang that almost derailed the Singapore summit was the result of something Chinese President Xi Jinping told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on his May trip to China.

North Korea’s rejection of the United States’s call for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, made following Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump identifies first soldier remains from North Korea | New cyber strategy lets US go on offense | Army chief downplays talk of 'Fort Trump' Pompeo backed continued US support in Yemen war over objections from staff: report Pompeo’s staff cracks down on ‘correct use of commas’ at State Dept MORE’s visit, raised immediate questions about the country’s intentions.

Some saw the statement as a negotiating tactic meant to extract more concessions, others as a sign that North Korea has little intention of following through on denuclearization.

“Pompeo certainly showed that there’s a bigger gap between Washington and Pyongyang than the administration had been depicting,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA division chief for Korea who is now at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Pompeo was in Pyongyang to begin hashing out the details of how to implement the joint statement signed by Trump and Kim at their summit in Singapore last month.

In the statement, the United States agreed to provide North Korea with unspecified security guarantees in exchange for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But the statement included no details on how to achieve denuclearization, such as a timeline or verification process.

Other promises Kim made at the summit, including the repatriation of the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War and the destruction of a missile engine testing site, have yet to be carried out.

Pompeo, who when leaving Pyongyang described his meetings as “productive,” brushed off the “gangster” comments from North Korea.

“I was there for the event,” Pompeo told reporters in Japan. “I know actually what precisely took place. When we spoke to them about the scope of denuclearization, they did not push back. It wasn’t my language; it was the language of Chairman Kim. He committed to complete denuclearization.”

Trump’s critics seized on North Korea’s latest comments to argue the talks are floundering.

“Despite all the reality show pomp and circumstance, the negotiations thus far have been a flop,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a floor speech Monday.

In a conference call with reporters Monday, 38 North co-founder Joel Wit and Robert Gallucci, who led North Korea negotiations in the 1990s, said North Korea’s post-Pompeo statement is not a death sentence for the talks.

“Secretary of State Pompeo didn’t fail in Pyongyang any more than President Trump succeeded in Singapore,” Gallucci said.

Wit said the statement was relatively tame for North Korea.

“There was no criticism of President Trump, there was continued cultivation of the good relationship that came out of Singapore, and so I think that’s very important,” Wit said. “Overall, the focus on this ‘gangster’ comment, ignoring 90 percent of the rest of the statement, I think really did a disservice to what it actually said.”

Washington and Pyongyang will face some difficulties given their disconnect over the basic concept of denuclearization.

“The North Korean readout of the Singapore meeting claimed that Trump had agreed to the North Korean concept of ‘action for action,’” Klingner said. This would entail a lengthy process in which each side would give the other concessions in bits and pieces.

The U.S. interpretation, Klinger said, is that North Korea would not receive any economic benefits until total, verifiable denuclearization is achieved.

Given those clashing interpretations, it’s difficult to come up with a timeline for a dismantled North Korean nuclear program.

National security adviser John Bolton last week gave a one-year timeline for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula — adding that Pompeo on his recent trip would present officials with such a plan.

Days later, the administration backed away from the one-year talk.

“I know some individuals have given timelines. We’re not going to provide a timeline for that ... A lot of work is left to be done, certainly,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on July 3.

Pompeo has previously said the United States wants North Korea to take “major” disarmament steps before Trump completes his first term.

Harry Kazianis, director of The Center for the National Interest think tank, said neither Bolton nor Pompeo has any idea how long such an endeavor would take without a full account of the size, scope and scale of Pyongyang’s nuclear infrastructure.

“What this difference in opinion does show is Bolton’s willingness to press the Kim regime much harder with a tougher time frame, whereas Pompeo has been on record against any sort of timeline,” Kazianis said.

Gallucci and Wit, meanwhile, said they are concerned about the process from here, arguing that a senior official needs to be appointed to lead the negotiations rather than leaving it to working groups, as Pompeo said will happen.

Having a lead negotiator outside of the secretary of State could help clarify the U.S. position on issues such as security assurances, a timeline for lifting sanctions and generally what step-by-step tradeoffs the Trump administration is willing to accept, Gallucci said.

“Everybody here is engaged in a process in which there really isn’t trust,” Gallucci said, “so you have to proceed carefully, and you have to give and get at the same time.”