Pretending everything is going great, as Trump has done repeatedly this week, is a dangerous self-delusion. The stakes are too high to give in to the temptation to convince ourselves that a peace deal is in the offing. Of course, the best outcome would be for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is leading the negotiations, to succeed. But ignoring the growing possibility of the opposite result is just irresponsible.
There is already a quiet effort, both inside the Trump administration and around Washington, to develop options if the talks should fail. The aim is to avoid war, prevent North Korea from being accepted as a nuclear state and return to a policy of maximum pressure. But for that to succeed, the United States can’t wait until the talks actually break down.
“Things are going well. There’s no rush,” Trump said Tuesday at the White House. “We have no time limit, we have no speed limit. We are just going through the process.”
Since the June 12 summit, Trump has claimed, falsely, that the North Korea nuclear threat is over, that the remains of 200 American soldiers had been returned and that North Korea would destroy another missile site after his meeting with Kim. But his newest assertion — that there’s no rush — is perhaps his biggest misstep to date.
While Pompeo has refused to put a timeline on the discussions, he and other officials repeatedly have said they don’t want to repeat the mistakes of previous administrations that got dragged into protracted negotiations in which Pyongyang dangled concessions and played games. Time is on North Korea’s side, not ours.
Officials have privately briefed Congress that the administration will evaluate Kim’s sincerity in the spring. Between now and then, the United States’ ability to maintain its sanctions regime and return to maximum pressure will suffer. Pompeo has acknowledged that China is already loosening controls on its border with North Korea.
The Trump administration is preparing minimum sanctions maintenance, which means designating new North Korea entities under existing sanctions authorities. But inside the administration, some officials want to start readying new sanctions, in anticipation of when they might be needed.
After his latest trip to Pyongyang, Pompeo claimed progress but has refused to give any details. Privately, some administration officials describe the process as a disaster, often made worse by the president’s own behavior, including his offering of unilateral concessions, misrepresenting the status of key issues and speculating about removing U.S. troops from South Korea.
Talks over returning U.S. soldiers’ remains have only just begun, North Korea has not issued a basic declaration of its nuclear-related assets, there’s no public clarity on what Kim’s pledge of denuclearization really means, and there’s even evidence that Pyongyang is improving its nuclear facilities.
It’s not all bad news. North Korea has frozen missile and bomb tests in exchange for Trump freezing major U.S.-South Korean military drills, which is reversible. Tensions have gone down. Still, it’s time for the United States to own up to the likelihood that a grand bargain may not be possible. Kim simply might not be interested in giving up his nuclear program at all. He may not think Trump’s proposal to turn North Korea into a modern economy is in his best interest.
The domestic politics of North Korean diplomacy are good for Trump, so he has a personal incentive to keep it going. Like President Richard Nixon in 1969 , he can use the issue to distract from other scandals and present himself as a “peacemaker.” Trump bragged about the media attention on his Kim summit and attacked the media for negative coverage; that’s a win-win for him. There’s no political upside to ending the process, especially not before the next election.
But the national security implications of a long, drawn-out negotiation — one in which Kim plays Trump until Trump realizes it — are severe. Nobody wants Trump to resort to a military solution, so other options must be readied. Congress should hasten work on new sanctions bills. The State Department must prepare a diplomatic strategy to pivot back to maximum pressure when the time comes, focusing on China. The Pentagon must update the military options so they remain credible, thereby lowering the prospect that they might ever be used.
Everybody wants Trump and Pompeo’s North Korea diplomacy to succeed. But pretending that’s likely or neglecting to anticipate the next step is foolish and risky. The United States needs to start working on a Plan B now, or be left with a binary choice between accepting a nuclear North Korea or going to war.