Two months have gone by since the Singapore summit with no serious steps toward denuclearization by North Korea, a reality that has left the Trump administration offering mixed messages on how it plans to proceed in negotiations amid growing concern that Washington is being played by Pyongyang.
Hard-liners advising President Trump say the North Koreans need to start showing results.
“We’re not willing to wait for too long,” Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told reporters this week, echoing comments by National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, who complained that Pyongyang has “not taken effective steps” since broadly agreeing to the goal of denuclearization in Singapore.
But Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the president’s point man in the outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, have sounded a much more hopeful tone at times. Mr. Pompeo has advocated for patience and stressed that he firmly believes in Pyongyang’s “commitment to denuclearize.”
“We still have a ways to go to achieve the ultimate outcome,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters last weekend. He added that “there are lots of conversations taking place,” suggesting a breakthrough may be in the works even with signs pointing to the contrary.
The slow pace of U.S.-North Korean talks stands in contrast with increasingly frequent contacts between North Korea and the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a longtime supporter of engagement with Pyongyang on the divided and heavily armed Korean Peninsula.
North and South Korean negotiators met again Thursday, this time to discuss an eventual reconnection of railway lines, the Yonhap news agency reported. Talks are planned for Monday at the border village of Panmunjom to discuss the next summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday that U.S. and North Korean officials talk “virtually every day,” and the White House has hinted about a second Kim-Trump meeting. But Ms. Nauert said she had no travel announcements to make at this time.
U.S. intelligence satellite imagery appears to show a flurry of North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile activity on the outskirts of Pyongyang in recent weeks. The imagery fit with other indications that North Korea’s Mr. Kim intends to play hardball when it comes to abandoning the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, long seen as guaranteeing the isolated North’s survival.
A key state-controlled newspaper in Pyongyang this week with an editorial sharply criticizing the Trump administration’s assertion that sanctions against North Korea can be lifted only after denuclearization is fully achieved, rather than through a phased, step-for-step approach long demanded by the Kim regime.
“There have been outrageous arguments coming out of the U.S. State Department that it won’t ease sanctions until a denuclearization is completed, and [that] reinforcing sanctions is a way to raise its negotiating power,” argued the Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party mouthpiece publication.
“Going against the intention of President Trump … some high-level officials within the U.S. administration are making baseless allegations against us and making desperate attempts at intensifying the international sanctions and pressure,” the statement said.
But some veteran U.S. diplomats say the Trump team should not overreact.
“The process of negotiating a ‘complete denuclearization’ of North Korea will require patience and perseverance,” said Joseph DeTrani, a longtime former U.S. intelligence official who served as special U.S. envoy to nuclear talks with Pyongyang before they collapsed nearly a decade ago.
“North Korea will work hard to ensure that they get what they want in return for denuclearization: security assurances, normal relations with the U.S. and sanctions relief,” Mr. DeTrani said in an interview this week.
“This is now frustrating,” he said. “But compared with one year ago, when we could have stumbled into conflict on the Korean Peninsula, we’re apparently in a better place now, with no North Korean nuclear tests and missile launches.”
“The administration is in the midst of experimental diplomacy, the outcome of which is not yet known,” said Patrick Cronin, who heads the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“Critics of the Trump administration assume it was doomed from the outset, and while that may prove to be true, it is too early to tell,” Mr. Cronin said. “Until diplomacy fails, there is some hope of success. It has not yet failed.”
China in the way?
U.S. officials have long expressed frustration that Beijing, despite signing off on U.N. Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang, is tacitly exploiting the North Korea situation to gain leverage against Washington in other arenas, most notably in U.S.-Chinese trade talks.
“China has the largest influence,” said one senior diplomatic source from the region with direct insight into the ongoing negotiations with Pyongyang. “They are a very important player in this game.”
While there may be consensus at the moment among U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials that Beijing has genuinely bought into the goal of denuclearization, there is also a major fear among Chinese officials that “North Korea may become too close to the United States,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It’s a fear others are watching closely.
Michael Pillsbury, a Mandarin-speaking analyst and author who has worked on China policy since the 1970s, said that “the denuclearization process could conceivably go faster if China wanted it to.”
“The catch is that Beijing is wary Pyongyang may be seduced into pivoting away from China’s orbit and realigning itself as an ally of the United States and South Korea,” said Mr. Pillsbury, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “That wariness finds the Chinese advocating behind the scenes for a very slow process.”
While Mr. Trump characterized his June 12 agreement with Mr. Kim as major step toward North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons, no detailed agreement has been signed and confusion still swirls around whether Washington and Pyongyang have the same definition of “denuclearization.”
The broadly worded joint statement at the Singapore summit committed the North to “work toward” the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” During the two months since Pyongyang has publicized its dismantling of a rocket engine test site and followed through on a separate pledge to hand over what are believed to be the remains of U.S. service members killed in the Korean War.
But U.S. negotiators have yet to see a timetable for the end of the North’s nuclear program or even a verified inventory of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. According a report this week by Vox, Mr. Pompeo has repeatedly proposed to the North Koreans that they hand over 60 percent to 70 percent of their nuclear warheads within six to eight months, but the proposal has been turned down every time.
Mr. Bolton told PBS on Monday that the administration is considering sending Mr. Pompeo on a fourth visit to Pyongyang to raise the issue with Mr. Kim. It remains to be seen whether the North Korean leader will bite this time.
“The Kim regime is resisting even this incomplete denuclearization,” said Mr. Cronin, “because it no doubt wants bigger concessions from the United States.”
But with Mr. Trump having halted annual U.S.-South Korean military drills as a gesture to Mr. Kim, and with the administration unlikely to back off its determination to keep sanctions in place for the long haul, it’s not clear what concessions Washington may be prepared to give.
In the interim, Mr. Cronin said, it makes sense for the hard-liners around Mr. Trump to make some noise about their frustration over how slow things are going.
“John Bolton,” he said, “is the pit bull the administration needs to keep up pressure on the Kim regime if diplomacy is to start to demonstrate its worth.”
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