Trump’s Deal Is All Show, No Reality in Pyongyang

Negotiations with North Korea are a grueling process. The president’s empty boasts don’t help.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) speaks during a meeting with North Korea's director of the United Front Department, Kim Yong Chol (R) at the Park Hwa Guest House in Pyongyang on July 6, 2018. (ANDREW HARNIK/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) speaks during a meeting with North Korea's director of the United Front Department, Kim Yong Chol (R) at the Park Hwa Guest House in Pyongyang on July 6, 2018. (ANDREW HARNIK/AFP/Getty Images)

Negotiations with North Korea are like driving down one of its poorly maintained roads, full of bumps and potholes. The rule of thumb is not to become too desperate for positive results. But as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returns from yet another trip to Pyongyang, he has discovered that the only thing tougher than putting meat on the bones of the scanty Singapore agreement is trying to pin the North down on deliverables that President Donald Trump is desperate to take credit for.

The four-paragraph declaration signed by Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12 was long on promises and short on specifics. Pompeo’s third trip to North Korea, which he has visited more than any other country during his tenure as secretary, was supposed to turn these promises into actual results. But the only concrete meetings set to follow the visit are working-level discussions on the repatriation of the remains of Korean War-era U.S. service members, which will commence this week.

I know how meaningful returning these remains is for the families involved since I, along with Bill Richardson and Anthony Principi, brought back the last set of remains in 2007. Yet this sounds far from a done deal — even though Trump is already boasting that it has happened. The holdup, I would imagine, is that North Korea wants the United States to pay the expenses for the excavation of the remains, which, in reality, have been ready to be sent for many years. The money extorted this way can amount to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars paid directly to the Korean People’s Army.

Pompeo also stated that progress was made on talks to decommission a missile engine test site — but there’s no conclusive deliverable here. And, again, Trump has claimed that this has already happened. Moreover, there are rumors that the site under discussion is an obsolete one used for liquid-propellant engines while the North has moved on to advanced solid-propellant engines. Liquid fuel corrodes and has to be gassed up before a launch, rendering it more vulnerable to strikes; solid fuel has neither of these problems.

By boasting about policy successes that have not yet happened, the president not only risks embarrassing himself but also puts undue pressure on his point person. This invariably gives leverage to the North Koreans, as well as to the Chinese should we need to call on them for help. It also runs the risk of settling for less at the bargaining table than originally sought.

Pompeo stated that working-level denuclearization talks would continue, but that in itself was tantamount to admitting failure since the trip was supposedly the antidote to inefficient talks. North Korea is still operating from the same playbook it has been using for decades. Critics of U.S. policy in the past have argued that a personal relationship between the two leaders would prompt a breakthrough in these perennial negotiations and move the North Koreans to make a strategic choice to give up their weapons for security assurances and economic assistance from the international community.

Well, Trump sealed that relationship with a handshake, and the North Koreans still scoff at denuclearization while demanding the lifting of sanctions, suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises, a peace treaty, and the end of the U.S. nuclear umbrella — just as they’ve been doing for the last two decades. In the meantime, the United States has already sacrificed an important alliance equity thanks to Trump’s unilateral suspension of the joint military exercises with South Korea while giving up rhetorical ground by his adoption of the false North Korean description of these regular defensive exercises as “provocative war games.”

However disappointing the results of Pompeo’s trip are, the administration is not yet ready to walk away from diplomacy if for no other reason than Trump wanting to achieve that which he has already taken credit for. But realistic strategies have been blocked off by the moves of a president who lacks any broader strategy for Asia or for U.S. allies and instead blunders from conflict to conflict, leaving a trail of collateral damage.

For example, the smart play now would be to call in favors with Beijing for having logged three trips to Pyongyang. Beijing wants to see negotiations in good faith, and usually such outreach would give the United States leverage to demand that more negotiations on its part should be backed up by greater economic pressure by Beijing on its sole formal ally. But now that the United States is in a full-blown trade war with China, Beijing has little if any reason to do the country favors.

Another smart play would be to use the upcoming NATO summit as an opportunity for a full-throated joint message to Kim that if he wants to continue to travel and meet world leaders, then he needs to commit to abandoning all nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles or face further sanctions. But after months of rhetoric from Trump about U.S. allies not pulling their weight, it’d be far harder to get them on board for such a move.

North Korean negotiations will be long and grueling, but they shouldn’t eat up all of America’s attention. The threat from Pyongyang is important, but the United States has a much larger agenda in Asia — one that has already being neglected. At the top of the list should be an early rescheduling of the first-ever 2+2 dialogue with India, which Pompeo skipped in order to go to Pyongyang. North Korea policy should never come at the expense of the broader U.S. strategy in Asia.

Victor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the author of Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. Twitter: @VictorDCha

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