The Singapore Honeymoon Is Over

Trump in Singapore was spectacle. Pompeo in Pyongyang is the grim reality.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and aides in Pyongyang on July 6. (Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and aides in Pyongyang on July 6. (Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)

It was never going to be easy for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to turn President Donald Trump’s sweeping declaration of progress with North Korea into reality. Even with the aid of Ambassador Sung Kim, an outstanding U.S. diplomat with immense North Korea experience, Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang with several huge handicaps.

Some of his problems are of the administration’s own making. The deliberately unhelpful deadline for quick denuclearization put forth by Trump’s famously hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, combined with a leaked U.S. intelligence report outlining North Korea’s accelerated concealment program, put Pompeo in an impossible position, ending in a public rebuke from Pyongyang.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is betting that he can get what he wants directly from Trump himself, cutting out the middleman. He can hardly be blamed for thinking that Trump is a soft touch after his boastful post-summit press conference revealing his plan to cancel the “expensive” and “provocative” war games and eventually bring U.S. forces back from South Korea. Kim, who has shown himself a remarkably savvy player, has no cause to make costly concessions to Pompeo given Trump’s pattern of undercutting his top aides, many of whom are now out of the White House entirely.

Remember Rex “Wasting His Time” Tillerson? Remember H.R. “Bloody Nose” McMaster? Remember Defense Secretary James Mattis’s repeated insistence that U.S. troops and defense exercises with South Korea were essential? Kim does. And he remembers that although U.S. negotiators in the days before the summit pushed for tough written commitments on denuclearization and ballistic missiles, the statement Trump happily signed in Singapore did not include any such commitments. Nor did it mention proliferation, cybersecurity, chemical weapons, or human rights.

Negotiating with the North Koreans is always difficult because Kim wants it to be difficult. The Kim family playbook calls for making the Americans sweat the small stuff. That way they’ll never get around to the big issue of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. By doling out progress in inches, even small concessions carry a high price tag.

Pompeo’s first trip to Pyongyang as secretary of state focused heavily on freeing three American hostages. By his own admission, on his recent trip he pushed North Korea unsuccessfully to deliver on two promises that Trump mistakenly claimed Kim already fulfilled: returning the remains of 200 Korean War-era U.S. service members and dismantling one of its many missile test sites. The fact that North Korea has done neither of these and that three weeks after the Singapore summit all Pompeo could get was a working-level dialogue on “modalities” does not augur well for expeditious progress on the really important things Pyongyang has not yet agreed to, such as relinquishing fissile material and dismantling nuclear production facilities.

The biggest problem that Pompeo faces is the now diminished leverage from sanctions. Despite administration vows to maintain tough sanctions, even Pompeo has acknowledged backsliding by China. “Maximum pressure,” which arguably brought North Korea to the table, is now “minimal pressure” for the simple reason that China is no longer on board.

Sanctions remain on paper and are still a nuisance for Kim. But their effectiveness always depended on active enforcement by China, which clearly has ebbed: Flights to North Korea have resumed. Tourism to North Korea is resurgent. North Korean laborers are streaming back to China. Real estate values along the border are rising. North Korean barges are again delivering coal and Chinese ships transferring oil at sea. China’s Foreign Ministry proposed lifting sanctions.

Most importantly, the grand protocol and warm welcome given to Kim by Chinese President Xi Jinping on three visits to China in three months after years of estrangement gave an unmistakable green light to Chinese businessmen and black marketeers. This leaves Pompeo relatively little leverage to trade with.

By blindsiding U.S. partners — first zigging toward war and then zagging abruptly to bilateral summitry — Trump has shaken confidence in America’s reliability and launched a free-for-all that Kim is exploiting. North Korea now deals separately with Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow, which are all now pushing the United States to soften its demands and sweeten its concessions. Japan, marginalized in the diplomatic process and stunned by Trump’s talk of withdrawing U.S. troops, is beginning to think the unthinkable about how to defend against North Korean nuclear-armed missiles without the U.S. umbrella. Valiant attempts by Mattis and Pompeo, including recent meetings with Japan and Korea, to reassure allies and partners ring hollow in light of Trump actions.

It’s true that, as a South Korean presidential spokesperson said in response to North Korea’s criticism of Pompeo’s visit, a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step. But the North Korean nuclear threat is a minefield, and the journey will not end well if the Trump administration can’t avoid further missteps.

Daniel Russel is the vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.