Security Brief

Will the Real North Korea Policy Please Stand Up?

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper warns about Pyongyang’s new missiles, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo downplays any threat.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un look on as documents are exchanged between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, during a signing ceremony in Singapore on June 12, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un look on as documents are exchanged between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, during a signing ceremony in Singapore on June 12, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: The Trump administration can’t keep its story straight on North Korea, a fresh Taliban offensive tests peace talks in Afghanistan, and major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan send a signal to Beijing.

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Trump’s North Korea Policy Is Still Confused

North Korea raised eyebrows around the world last weekend when it rolled out a massive new ballistic missile system, with projectiles that can be launched off of trucks and carry multiple warheads as far as the United States. But as usual, U.S. President Donald Trump’s top national security aides didn’t have their story straight about the threat posed by the weapons, adding to a muted response from the administration.

How you see North Korea depends on where you sit.

Greeting the South Korean minister of defense at the Pentagon on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper called North Korea’s nuclear program a “serious threat to the security and stability of the region and the world.” But his colleague, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, didn’t seem to agree: When asked on Wednesday if Trump’s diplomacy reduced the threat from North Korea, Pompeo said yes, adding that North Korea “did exactly zero” intercontinental ballistic missile tests last year.

“The agreement, the understandings, albeit not achieving our ultimate objective in North Korea, has certainly led to reduced risk from the United States vis where we would have been had we continued on the path that the previous administration had engaged in,” Pompeo said.

Not so fast, Mike. Pompeo’s comments were lampooned by arms control advocates, who said that the Trump administration’s track record against the North Korean nuclear threat was worse than Obama’s. “So ridiculous from Pompeo,” tweeted Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. “North Korea conducted an ICBM test for the first time in 2017. Three of them actually.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s overtures for a third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have fallen on deaf ears, and recent State Department efforts to rekindle talks have stalled—unsurprisingly, given that the world is waiting to see whether Trump is reelected.

How would Biden handle Kim? Most experts agree that whether the United States and North Korea come back to the negotiating table hinges on who wins in November. Biden hasn’t given many details on his potential North Korea policy but has suggested he would tighten sanctions on Pyongyang and avoid high-profile, face-to-face summits with Kim.

Some experts predict that if Biden wins, Kim could use the waning months of Trump’s lame-duck administration to test more advanced weapons systems and feel out how Biden would respond.


What We’re Watching

False START. It’s not just North Korea that’s recently proven tough for Trump. The New York Times reports that Trump thought he had a deal in hand with Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the Obama-era New START treaty, which expires in February. But the promise of a pre-election deal appeared to go out the window this week: The lead U.S. negotiator Marshall Billingslea announced Tuesday that Trump and Putin had an “agreement in principle,” only for Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov to contradict him hours later.

The Egyptian connection. The Justice Department led a three-year investigation into whether Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign used money from an Egyptian state-owned bank to back up a contribution made by Trump himself, CNN reported on Wednesday. While investigators were not able to prove that a bank transfer took place, the criminal campaign finance probe continued under Justice Department auspices after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office shut down.

Prosecutors wanted to know whether Trump “was supported by or indebted to a foreign power” after an informant suggested an Egyptian bank backed Trump’s contribution of $10 million to his campaign’s coffers in the waning days of the 2016 race.

Double dealing. The Trump administration is holding out hope for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban to wind down the war in Afghanistan, but the Taliban has other plans. The militant group has launched an offensive on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, cutting off the city from Afghan forces and putting thousands of civilians in danger. The Taliban’s offensive raises questions about its commitment to the peace talks.

What happens next in Lashkar Gah could be a litmus test for how far the U.S. military will go to support Afghan allies and how much resolve Washington has to continue with the negotiations. Zalmay Khalilzad, the top U.S. negotiator with the Taliban, said that the new attacks were “threatening the peace process” in a series of tweets today.

Taiwanna fight? The Trump administration gave Congress an informal heads-up this week that it plans to move ahead with three major arms sales to Taiwan, in a move that could spark further tensions between the United States and China. While the cost of the sale—first reported by Reuters—was not disclosed, aides on Capitol Hill said the deals were for the so-called High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launched from truck beds, F-16 fighter jet sensor pods, and precise air-to-ground missiles.

As many as seven weapons systems are at various stages of the notification process, but risk angering Beijing. On Tuesday, a spokesman from China’s foreign ministry urged the U.S. to cancel the sales.

Pompeo on the ‘deep state.’ In an interview with a Florida radio station on Thursday, the host pressed Pompeo on whether there is in fact a “deep state” in the State Department. His response may rankle some of his own employees: “There’s always people inside of every organization that aren’t fully on board, on the team’s mission,” Pompeo said.

“When we identify them, we move them out of the way. We get them to a different place, and we try to find people only who are committed to doing America’s mission, President Trump’s mission, on behalf of the United States.”


Movers and Shakers

Dangerous liaisons. The Trump administration shook up the Defense Department’s White House Liaison Office again by adding several young loyalists—a move that current and former officials worry may be aimed at entrenching the Trump faithful in career positions that could undermine a possible Biden administration.

New NSC move. The White House has named Josh Hodges, a former U.S. Agency for International Development official, to head up policy in the Americas on the National Security Council. Leading the Western Hemisphere directorate, Hodges is expected to hone in on Venezuela, the COVID-19 crisis, and upcoming elections in Bolivia, according to Politico, which first reported the news.

State Department shake-ups. Pompeo announced this week that Robert Destro, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, will serve as the U.S. special envoy for Tibetan issues. In bureaucratic parlance, this means the envoy position is being downgraded from an under-secretary level to the assistant secretary level.

Meanwhile, Mark Pekkala, the senior-most career diplomat in the State Department’s international organization affairs, announced he would retire at the end of October.


Foreign Policy Recommends

Renaming the bases. After protests against racial injustice this summer prompted calls for the Army to rename bases named after Confederate generals, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told Congress the moves would be “political decisions” and recommended a costly study. The problem is the Army already did one, while Milley was the service’s top-ranking officer—but it kept it under wraps.

Task and Purpose reports that in 2017, the Army Center of Military History found that the Army originally named the posts and it has the authority to rename them after all. (President Trump objected to the move earlier this summer). Milley “has not yet seen the report but looks forward to reading it,” his spokesperson said.


The Week Ahead

The U.N. embargo on arms sales to Iran is due to be lifted on Sunday, Oct. 18.

Christopher Ford, the Trump administration’s top diplomat on international security and nonproliferation, will speak on diplomacy and cyberspace at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday, Oct. 19.

The final U.S. presidential debate between Trump and Biden is scheduled to be held in-person in Nashville on Thursday, Oct. 22. The second debate was cancelled due to Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis.

The Senate Judiciary Committee votes on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court on Thursday, Oct. 22.


Odds and Ends

Let this be a lesson. A tourist who stole artifacts from the ancient archeological site of Pompeii in Italy 15 years ago has returned them, saying the objects were cursed and brought years of bad luck to her life. Note to self: Do not mess with ancient curses.


That’s it for today.

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Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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