Making Sense of the August Fizzle in the US-North Korea Negotiations

Recent Features


Making Sense of the August Fizzle in the US-North Korea Negotiations

U.S.-North Korea diplomacy is at an impasse. Will September produce a breakthrough or a collapse?

Making Sense of the August Fizzle in the US-North Korea Negotiations
Credit: Official White House Photo

July 2018 ended with reports that North Korea was still manufacturing intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. August 2018 now is poised to end with the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process in disarray, as U.S. President Donald J. Trump, on Friday, decided to announce that contrary to weeks of expectations, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will not be heading to Pyongyang for another round of talks this week.

“I have asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to go to North Korea, at this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Trump tweeted on the 24th. “In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”

September 2018, meanwhile, is poised to be a momentous month for Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un will celebrate the 70th anniversary of his country’s founding—likely with Chinese President Xi Jinping by his side—and host South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a fifth inter-Korean summit. Even as North Korea’s diplomatic process with the United States might be at a roadblock, Pyongyang will push ahead with China and South Korea.

The fate of the process between the United States and North Korea isn’t surprising. Yes, last week’s appointment of a special representative for North Korea policy—Ford’s Steve Biegun—was long overdue, but that alone won’t smooth over the fundamental divergences between Pyongyang and Washington over denuclearization, sequencing, and the road from the June 12 Trump-Kim encounter in Singapore.

Had Pompeo gotten on a plane to Pyongyang this week, he’d have largely been in for more of the same with his North Korean counterpart Kim Yong Chol. Pompeo’s repeated calls for the “final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea—a phrase not included in either the Singapore declaration between Trump or Kim, or the inter-Korean Panmunjom declaration from April—has fallen on deaf ears in Pyongyang. So too have U.S. proposals for North Korea to declare nuclear sites or, more dramatically, ship some percentage of its manufactured warheads to a third country to make a so-called ‘down payment’ on denuclearization. (To be sure, there’s skepticism within the Trump administration about the realism of these proposals.)

Simply put, the fundamentals for any kind of productive U.S.-North Korea diplomacy are absent right now. But North Korea isn’t fretting. For weeks now, Pyongyang’s English-language propaganda, delivered by the Korean Central News Agency, has sought to decouple Trump from his deputies. The point of emphasis in Pyongyang is simple: only Trump can take a “bold” step to break the impasse.

Trump, it would seem, agrees with this. Even as he canceled Pompeo’s sojourn to Pyongyang, he expressed his respect for Kim and said he’d look forward to another summit meeting. A second U.S.-North Korea summit might be the only way to avoid the complete collapse of this fragile process. It won’t get Washington any closer to actual denuclearization—of the final and fully verified variety—but it will restore the illusion of progress with Pyongyang.

If Trump and Kim enjoyed a honeymoon period in the weeks after Singapore, that’s slowly faded, as Pompeo and other U.S. interlocutors have gotten down to brass-tacks with their North Korean counterparts. It would appear now that both Trump and Kim are eager to maintain the “Singapore spirit”—the air of camaraderie between the two leaders. Cancelling Pompeo’s trip should provide further evidence to the North Koreans that the only American worth dealing with on anything—denuclearization, sanctions relief, and even a peace treaty—is Trump himself. (Biegun, it seems, is starting from a point of near-irrelevancy.)

All of this sets us up for what will likely be a mighty eventful September. Beyond the anticipated summit, 70th anniversary celebrations, and a likely visit, we may be in for a fateful turn in the U.S.-North Korea process, which is likely to veer either toward another Trump-Kim summit—or toward total disintegration.