The Koreas

Trump’s North Korea Policy: Treating Reality Like Reality Television

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The Koreas

Trump’s North Korea Policy: Treating Reality Like Reality Television

The gap between Trump’s portrayal of events and the reality on the ground is cause for serious concern.

Trump’s North Korea Policy: Treating Reality Like Reality Television
Credit: U.S. Department of State

Following the June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump and his advisers were quick to state that Kim had agreed to completely denuclearize, and, according to the president himself, North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.”

Still, the administration assured skeptical observers sanctions would remain in place until Pyongyang held up its end of the deal, an apparent reference to the third of four points listed in the Trump-Kim Joint Statement, which read: “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Yet, aside from this general commitment, the statement did not specify any timeline or actual steps Pyongyang was bound to take.

Less than a month later, the sanctions regime shows signs of weakening. Both China and Russia reportedly submitted a statement to the UN Security Council calling for the easing of sanctions, which the United States rejected. It is safe to assume that as the trade war between the U.S. and China grows, Beijing will likely be less eager to follow Washington’s line, a fissure Pyongyang has already begun to exploit.

Even more at odds with Trump’s claims are the recent reports that Pyongyang has moved right along with improvements to its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, and now its submarine launch capabilities. To be clear, some have expressed significant doubt regarding the new intelligence reports on North Korea, and it would not be the first time the U.S. intelligence community suddenly produced intelligence for politically motivated reasons. Nevertheless, it also would not be surprising to learn Pyongyang has not deviated from its long-stated goal to develop its nuclear weapons program to the greatest extent possible: an assured ability to strike the U.S. mainland. Furthermore, as noted, nothing concrete in the Trump-Kim Joint Statement prevents Pyongyang from doing so.

The obvious truth is that no denuclearization deal currently exists. None of this is to say further negotiations cannot or will not make progress, but the gap between the Trump administration’s portrayal of events and the reality on the ground is cause for serious concern moving forward.

The inchoate nature of President Trump’s behavior and rhetoric, and, by extension, administration policy, has continued apace. The consequence is that Trump’s advisers must walk back, attempt to provide nuance to, or be forced to support the president’s demonstrably untrue statements. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified before Congress that Trump merely meant to say the threat from North Korea had been “reduced,” not that it no longer posed a threat. He also had to admit that, despite Trump’s claim to the contrary, Pyongyang had not, in fact, returned the remains of 200 U.S. service members killed during the Korean War. Meanwhile, National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is well known to believe Pyongyang can never be trusted, has, as Abigail Tracy writes, “been reduced to repeating that Kim is ‘very emphatic’ about his desire to denuclearize.” Does he know something we don’t?

The incongruous statements coming from Washington may also indicate the administration is feuding internally over its previously sacrosanct stance on the timing and nature of North Korean denuclearization, with administration sources telling CNN Pompeo and Bolton are in constant conflict over the issue.

Before the summit, the administration claimed Pyongyang must denuclearize rapidly, that unlike past negotiations,Trump would not permit a drawn-out process. Nevertheless, within roughly a week of the summit, Trump began to say it could take awhile, which message was reinforced last week by Pompeo, who told CNN he would not put a timeline on negotiations. This followed his earlier statement that he expects Pyongyang to take major steps toward nuclear disarmament within the next two-and-a-half years.

However, last Sunday in an interview on Face the Nation, Bolton said the administration had a plan for North Korea to dismantle “the overwhelming bulk” of their nuclear and missile programs “within a year,” which would require Pyongyang’s cooperation and “full disclosure of all” of its chemical, biological, nuclear, and ballistic missile sites. But, on Tuesday, the State Department’s spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, remarked: “I know some individuals have given timelines. We’re not going to provide a timeline for that.”

Speaking at the White House, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said if Pyongyang makes the decision to denuclearize, its ballistic missile program could be dismantled in a year. Sanders’ comments indicate a potential delinking of Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles from its nuclear program. In other words, might the administration’s primary focus now be on rolling back North Korea’s ability to strike the U.S. mainland rather than on dismantling the entire nuclear program? The truth is that we do not know, and administration officials themselves appear at odds over just what position to take.

U.S. officials also say the administration is stepping back from its oft-repeated CVID –complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization — demand, replaced now by the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea as agreed to by Chairman Kim.” The latter phrase apparently reflects the United States’ response to Seoul’s suggestion to take a less all-or-nothing approach as well as Pyongyang’s unwillingness to define key terms, including the words complete, verifiable, and irreversible, during talks with U.S. negotiator (and ambassador to the Philippines) Sung Kim.

Senior South Korean officials are said to have told their U.S. counterparts last month that CVID is seen by Pyongyang as a call for unilateral disarmament that increases the threat of regime change, and suggested Washington instead refer to “mutual threat reduction.” Responding to reports about a softening U.S. stance, Nauert asserted: “Nothing could be further from the truth. Our policy toward North Korea has not changed.”

This is where things stood as Pompeo made his third trip to Pyongyang (and his first overnight stay) in order to try to move the negotiation process along. Apparently, rather than make actual substantive progress toward denuclearization, Pompeo’s main objective was to get clarity on certain issues, namely: the return of the aforementioned service members’ remains, a timeline for destruction of a missile-engine test site Trump said was already being dismantled, and to figure out who his actual negotiating partner will be. Pompeo himself stated he was going in order to “fill in some details on those commitments and continue the momentum toward implementation of what the two leaders promised each other and the world.”

So what did Pompeo get? In terms of the missile test site and service members’ remains, the secretary apparently talked with Pyongyang about the possibility of discussing those issues — again — at a later date. Pompeo told reporters after his visit that the two countries would soon hold working-level talks on the destruction of the missile-testing site, and that Pentagon officials would meet their North Korean counterparts around July 12 at the DMZ to discuss the return of U.S. military personnel.

His negotiating partner? Despite meeting with Kim Jong Un on his last two visits, Pompeo did not secure a similar audience this time around. Instead, he met with Kim Yong Chol, the vice chairman for South Korean Affairs for the Korean Workers’ Party and Director of the Workers’ Party’s United Front Department. Some see the lack of an audience with Kim Jong Un as a snub and possible effort by Pyongyang to slow-walk the negotiations, which is entirely possible. Yet it could also be a reflection of a newfound confidence following the unprecedented June 12 summit. In other words, from now on Kim meets with fellow principals, not their agents.

Lastly, despite Pompeo’s claim that “we made progress on almost all the central issues,” there is no further clarity on the ultimate U.S. objective (i.e. denuclearization) or how to achieve it. The North Korea Foreign Ministry released its own mixed statement following Pompeo’s visit, saying the attitude of the U.S. negotiators was “regrettable” and “robber-like” and that the United States violated the spirit of the June 12 summit, apparently as a result of the U.S. demand that Pyongyang unilaterally denuclearize. That statement added, however, that North Korea still wants “to build on the friendly relationship and trust” created at the Trump Kim summit.

The logical problem with all of this whole exercise should be obvious. As noted, Pompeo said his objective was to continue the momentum toward implementation of what was promised at Singapore. However, when there is no agreement on what was actually promised (if anything was promised at all), it is somewhat difficult to agree on how to implement anything.

The real danger also should be evident, as reality has a funny way of winning out. As Jeffrey Lewis told Abigail Tracy: “The administration is just trying to bluff it’s way through this, making promises that it can’t deliver. Maybe we’ll let them get away with that, because no one wants to go back to 2017. But the moment the U.S. gives Kim an ultimatum on disarmament, the process will collapse.”

Indeed, Bolton appears to favor just such a scenario, telling Fox News in March (just before joining the administration) that the summit was good because it would “foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste on negotiations.” Trump, hemmed in by growing domestic scandals and ever ready to shift policy without any prior warning or thought, has already signaled that talks could collapse.

In which case, 2017, or even worse, is just around the corner.