The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s North Korea diplomacy quietly stalls

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Rapprochement with North Korea has been perhaps the biggest foreign-policy achievement of President Trump’s tenure. But a number of quiet developments over the past few days suggest that there are major problems in the diplomatic process. Indeed, the United States and North Korea may have grown further apart since Trump’s historic summit with Kim Jong Un on June 12.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was scheduled to meet North Korea’s nuclear negotiator, Kim Yong Chol, in New York on Thursday. According to the State Department, Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart were to “discuss making progress on all four pillars of the Singapore Summit joint statement, including achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of [North Korea]."

Pompeo said he expected to make “some real progress” at the meeting, which would be used to plan for a second Trump-Kim summit tentatively scheduled for early next year. “I’m confident that we’ll advance the ball again this week when I’m in New York City,” he told CBS News' Face the Nation.

Instead, just minutes after midnight on Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert announced that the Thursday meeting would not take place. “We will reconvene when our respective schedules permit,” she said.

President Trump responded Nov. 7 to a question about the abrupt postponement of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's meeting with North Korean officials. (Video: Reuters)

It was yet another sign of how diplomacy has stagnated in the months since the summit. Pompeo has traveled to North Korea and held high-level meetings with his counterparts, much like the one coming up in New York. But at the working level, where the details are actually hammered out, progress has been slow at best.

The Trump administration had hoped to move things along by appointing a dedicated special envoy, Stephen Biegun, to lead negotiations. But Biegun has not yet been able to secure a meeting with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, who is supposed to be leading North Korea’s working-level delegation.

Many U.S. observers had chided the Trump administration for starting with high-level talks rather than with working-level meetings. Now, it seems that North Korea is the one dragging its feet on the more detailed negotiations. “My own concern is the leaders are so way out in front,” Joseph Yun, a former U.S. envoy on North Korea policy, said at a forum in Seoul last month.

The issues with this approach were reinforced last Friday, when North Korean state media suggested that the “arrogant” behavior of the United States could lead Pyongyang to restart its “byungjin” policy — simultaneously focusing on economic development and its nuclear program. It was effectively a warning that North Korea could soon resume the weapons and missile tests that led to so much tension in 2017.

Robert Carlin, a former CIA analyst and State Department specialist on Korea, wrote that the commentary was a new level of warning from North Korea. It “goes to the heart of Pyongyang’s concern that the US has been moving backwards, away from the agenda the two leaders laid out in the Singapore Summit joint statement,” Carlin wrote in a post for the North Korea-focused website 38 North.

The latest warning followed a number of other jibes from North Korean state media, including one that took the unprecedented step of criticizing Trump by name. As NK News noted, it was the “first negative casting of the American president on U.S.-DPRK diplomacy since the Singapore summit took place,” suggesting that even the high-level goodwill between Trump and Kim could be falling short.

For Trump, the breakdown in North Korean diplomacy would be a personal failure. The U.S. leader long suggested that he could solve the North Korea problem if he met with Kim himself — and he had a point. His willingness to meet the North Korean leader face-to-face this year set things in motion in a way previous U.S.-North Korea meetings, which involved officials at a lower levels, did not.

But as the Singapore summit recedes further into the past, its flaws are becoming more apparent. The brief, vague statement that Trump and Kim signed — just 400 words — did not provide a clear path for resolving the key issues in the standoff between the United States and North Korea. Both sides are still arguing over what “denuclearization” means and when it will happen, just as they were before the summit.

The U.S. president, always an unpredictable speaker, is also reported to have raised North Korean hopes about declaring an official end to the Korean War. That would grant Pyongyang some legitimacy, but many in Washington oppose such a move because of its implications for the U.S. military presence in South Korea. A Korean Peninsula formally at peace might be one on which U.S. troops would no longer be welcome.

For Pyongyang, the most important issue right now appears to be sanctions relief. But that is fundamentally at odds with the U.S. position, which says that Washington cannot ease economic pressure on North Korea because it would lose its greatest leverage over Pyongyang. Just this weekend, Pompeo emphasized that the United States would not lift sanctions until it could verify that North Korea had given up its weapons. North Korea, though, is hoping for sanctions first to be lifted.

The larger problem is that both sides are divided not only over what happens next, but also what has happened so far. The Trump administration viewed the Singapore Summit as a triumph of its “maximum pressure” sanctions policy and portrayed North Korean denuclearization as a fait accompli. But North Korea believes it forced Trump into a meeting with the success of its ramped-up nuclear capabilities, an advantage it is unlikely to give up.

Can such different views of negotiations be reconciled? Perhaps, especially given Trump’s own personal investment in talks. With the political test of the midterms over, Trump is likely to turn toward foreign policy again — and any big moves will ultimately come down to his choices.

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