US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an admirable effort to paint his two days of discussions with North Korean representatives in Pyongyang in the best light possible. He described the talks as ‘productive,’ and stated that progress was made on nearly all of the ‘central issues.’ The North Korean government’s take on the talks was strikingly different. Kim Yong Chol, a senior North Korean official, accused the United States of presenting a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization” that was “deeply regrettable.”
To make a long story short, after Pompeo’s visit, it appears US-North Korean relations may be drifting back to Square One with regards to North Korea denuclearizing.
If this turns out to be the case, the Trump administration is prepared for the contingency. From the moment Kim Jong Un made the first move towards improving relations with South Korea, and eventually the United States, the Trump administration adopted a hope-for-the-best-but-prepare-for-the-worst disposition. The US had little to lose by initiating the talks with North Korea which led to Kim Jong Un and President Trump meeting in Singapore last month. In the buildup to Singapore, the North’s comments and actions nearly derailed the summit. This was a red flag for the US regarding North Korea’s overall agenda, and intentions.
The disappointing outcome of Pompeo’s latest visit to Pyongyang places considerably more pressure on Pyongyang than on Washington. The North’s next move will be scrutinized closely. If it turns out that Kim has not been sincere about his desire to denuclearize, the Trump administration’s revised approach will become more inflexible. There’s little chance of the US relenting on its wish to see North Korea become nuclear-free. Therefore, the only real path for the US will be to tighten the screws on Pyongyang. Stiffer economic sanctions, and ramp up international pressure on North Korea. If that fails to motivate North Korea, other measures, including the use of force to force Kim’s to comply with denuclearization must be considered.
The much-anticipated summit meeting scheduled for mid-June between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore has been cancelled. The decision was made by President Trump following recent comments and actions by North Korea indicating that perhaps the North was not turning over a new leaf as many were hoping. Last week Pyongyang canceled scheduled talks with South Korea over joint US-South Korean military exercises going on in the South. Earlier this week, the first cracks became apparent. On Monday, North Korea made comments suggesting a nuclear showdown could occur if talks between the US and North Korea fail. Twenty-four hours later, Trump indicated there was a chance the planned summit might not take place at the planned time and place. Unknown to many outsiders, and journalists at the time, the president was making reference to North Korea’s failure to attend recent meetings in Singapore to work out planning for the summit. Then came Thursday’s cancellation with Trump citing North Korea’s ‘tremendous anger and open hostility’
What happens next is the great unknown. The cancellation took South Korea by complete surprise. South Korean President Moon Jae-in expended a lion’s share of political capital to make the US-North Korean summit a reality. In politics, of course, perception matters more than reality. Moon has to know his image will take a big hit as the fallout from the cancelled summit settles. Upon learning of Trump’s decision to call the meeting off, the South Korean government expressed complete surprise. Moon called an emergency meeting of his close advisers, and national security team to try and make sense of the US move.
The South Koreans are on the sidelines for the time being, however. The next step in this unfolding drama will depend on Pyongyang and how Kim chooses to respond.
North Korea announced today that it will be officially suspending missile testing, and the nuclear test site where six nuclear tests were conducted in the past will be closed.
“From April 21, North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a report Saturday morning. The announcement comes less than a week before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are scheduled to meet in the first inter-Korean summit to be held in over a decade.
Placing a moratorium on nuclear missile tests, and shutting down the nuclear test site are very likely calculated moves by Pyongyang. As North Korea basks in the glow of increasing media adoration, the hope probably is that these moves will be viewed as example of how Kim Jong Un and his government’s sincerity towards denuclearization, and its desire to improve relations with South Korea, and ultimately the United States.
This news just broke a short time ago, and as more information becomes available, I will add a more in-depth update Saturday evening or Sunday morning.
A formal end to the Korean War could be days away from becoming a reality. There are growing indications that the two Koreas are planning to announce the official end to the conflict. The Korean War ended with a ceasefire. No peace treaty or other statutory permanent agreement followed, meaning the war has been technically raging for 68 years although major combat between UN and North Korean/Chinese forces ended in 1953. A number of skirmishes have taken place between Combined Forces (US & South Korea) and North Korean troops. A number of them occasionally threatened to escalate into a major conflict, such as the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo, and the 1976 murders of two US officers at Panmunjon.
Ahead of next week’s summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In, officials from both nations appear to be working out the details for announcing the official end to the war shortly before the summit begins. The move would benefit both leaders tremendously. For Moon, bringing about an end to the Korean War would enable him to walk away from the summit with a victory that would play very well with South Koreans. For his North Korean counterpart, it would hopefully send a signal to the world that Kim Jong Un’s softening stance is genuine.
An agreement ending the Korean War would also raise expectations for the planned meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un that’s expected to take place within the next month. Preparations for the meeting have been progressing for some time. Over Easter weekend, current CIA Director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo allegedly met with Kim Jong Un according to the Washington Post. If true, the meeting confirms that high level Trump administration officials have been in contact with Un concerning plans for the summit, as Trump has indicated in recent days.
The path leading to a future meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un more closely resembles a minefield. A myriad of potentially explosive obstacles and variables will have to be navigated around or defused if the potential meeting is to become a reality. All parties involved are moving into uncharted territory. Never before have a US president and North Korean leader met face-to-face. Rarely in the past has a US president met with the leader of an adversarial nation-state during a period of such heightened tension. The 1961 summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna is probably the last time anything like this took place.
One of the driving forces behind the Vienna Summit was Khrushchev’s desire to size up the young American leader early in his presidency and determine what he was about. Something similar is happening right now. President Trump’s approach to North Korea is decidedly different from how his predecessors dealt with Pyongyang and it’s left Kim Jong Un stymied to a large degree. The curved strategy and strongarm tactics he used successfully with President Obama, and that his father used with Bush and Clinton have not worked with the current US president. Trump has been far more confrontational and direct in his dealings with the North Korean leader. Kim’s initial response was to raise the ante even more. This, however, only exacerbated the situation more and placed North Korea at a disadvantage.
For the moment, Trump and the United States has the initiative. North Korea’s extended PR/Propaganda offensive has brought it back into the game, though it will all be for nothing if Kim Jong Un does not meet with President Trump and negotiate in good faith. This is the point when the big picture becomes murky because of those obstacles and variables I spoke of before. Kim can point to one of these factors and use it as a reason to call off the meeting, whether the reason is genuine or not. Anything from the logistics of the meeting, to the roles played by South Korea and Japan have the potential to act as justifications for Kim to cancel the meeting and accuse the United States of deliberately setting up North Korea to look bad.
With luck, as the next week or two go on, the level of North Korea’s sincerity can be determined. If it becomes clear that Kim is simply wasting everyone’s time with the prospects of a US-North Korean meeting, don’t be surprised to see Trump cancel. Ironically enough, this could very well be exactly what Kim wants. Given the byzantine nature of North Korea’s actions and strategies it is not outside the realm of possibility.
Time will tell.