On Thursday night, North Korea’s spy chief will arrive in Washington for his planned meetings with President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to South Korean news reports and administration sources. But although everyone’s talking about it, the Trump administration has been silent.
The South Korean press has been reporting since Tuesday that top North Korean official Kim Yong Chol is en route to Washington to deliver another letter to Trump from Kim Jong Un and to finalize details for the second Trump-Kim summit. Multiple official sources confirmed this to me, as well as South Korean reports that U.S. special envoy Stephen Beigun will travel to Stockholm for a planned meeting with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-Hui, who is attending an international conference there.
According to Yonhap News Agency, Kim and two other North Korean officials are already booked on a United Airlines flight from Beijing to Dulles International Airport on Thursday. CNN reported that they will begin their Washington meetings Friday. But the Trump administration is still maintaining radio silence.
The National Security Council referred me to the State Department. A State Department spokesman told me, “We don't have any meetings to announce.” Pompeo abruptly canceled his visit to Kuwait and is returning to Washington earlier than planned. The State Department told reporters Pompeo is cutting short his Middle East tour to attend a family funeral.
Of course, the administration may be concerned that leaks could undermine the fragile operation — but the secret is already out. More likely, there’s no agreement on what to say because there’s no way to predict what Trump will say, do or agree to, if and when he meets with Kim.
Trump has been making foreign policy erratically and without fully consulting his top aides recently. Just this week, Pompeo admitted he was not given a heads-up before Trump tweeted a threat to “devastate Turkey economically,” despite the fact that the State Department was in the middle of sensitive negotiations with Ankara over the fate of the Kurds. And that was only days after Trump undermined national security adviser John Bolton’s claim that the United States would not withdraw troops from Syria until the Kurds’ safety is assured.
On North Korea, Trump has repeatedly made concessions — both rhetorical and actual — to Pyongyang without giving his Cabinet any advance warning. Trump admitted he agreed on the spot to pause U.S.-South Korean military exercises when Kim Jong Un asked him to do so during their June 2018 Singapore summit.
Trump frequently says he wants to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea, which would fulfill a major North Korean (and Chinese) wish. After exchanging a series of letters with Kim, Trump declared, “We fell in love.”
In recent weeks, Trump has complained, both in private and public, that South Korea isn’t paying enough to support U.S. troops there. The Special Measures Agreement that governs cost-sharing has now officially expired. The worst-case scenario is that Trump will agree to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula (and blame it on the South Koreans) at his upcoming summit with Kim Jong Un.
That’s where Pompeo and Biegun come in. Biegun has been trying to meet with his counterpart Choe unsuccessfully for months. In December, he traveled to Seoul and publicly announced that the Trump administration was willing to discuss a series of confidence-building measures with Pyongyang. The fact that he is meeting with Choe at all is a sign a real diplomatic process has begun.
Biegun’s theory, sources say, is that the next summit’s success depends on success during the lead-up to it. The United States will have to make some concessions, this argument goes, to reach the point where Trump can present Kim Jong Un with a grand bargain to revolutionize his economy in exchange for total denuclearization — or at least take a big step in that direction.
Hawks and skeptics in both Washington and Seoul believe that entire scheme is largely a fantasy and that Kim Jong Un is just playing for time by gradually wiggling out of sanctions while confounding U.S. diplomats by dangling but never delivering on real denuclearization. They point out that North Korea has taken zero steps toward denuclearization and continues to advance its nuclear and missile programs. They note the Kim regime hasn’t even handed over a declaration of its current arsenal, which was until recently the entry ticket for Summit No. 2. If they are correct, Trump is falling into the Kim regime’s trap due to vanity and politics.
Some are suspicious of the timing of Kim Yong Chol’s Washington visit. If Biegun’s trip to Sweden forces him to miss Trump’s meeting with Kim Yong Chol, that could tip the negotiating leverage in North Korea’s direction. Without the “details guy” by his side, Trump could be lured into a deal his advisers think is bad.
Trump is determined to have a second summit with Kim, and nobody on his team could stop it even if they tried. So Trump’s officials must try to set him up for success while managing the North Koreans (and the South Koreans and Chinese) at the same time. It’s a near-impossible task even with good bureaucratic management, clear signaling and a knowledgeable president — none of which is present here.
Hopefully, after Kim Yong Chol meets with Trump, the administration will let the rest of us know what the heck is going on and why they believe this roller-coaster, reality-TV-style diplomatic effort has any decent chance of succeeding. Their silence indicates they don’t have that answer yet.