United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Hanoi today after a lightning trip that has seen stops so far in Pyongyang and Tokyo before he heads to Brussels later this week. While Pompeo asserts progress was made on Friday and Saturday in North Korea, he has been accused of making “gangster-like demands” amidst recent media coverage of US intelligence claims that Pyongyang has increased this year production of fuel for nuclear weapons even as it has engaged in intensive diplomacy with Washington.
The revelations, which have raised question marks over the future of the negotiation process, are an embarrassment for the White House after US President Donald Trump’s assertions last month that there “is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea”. This is especially so since Pyongyang appears to have been trying to hide this increased fuel production at secret sites, while simultaneously seeking concessions from Washington, including over ending US military drills with South Korea.
A key reason why Pompeo’s visit was so important is that the Trump team needs to re-establish, in light of the US intelligence reports, Pyongyang’s readiness to engage in serious negotiations. Pompeo sought credible evidence to support this, alongside tangible progress in securing the long-requested remains of US troops missing from the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Given the significant diplomatic investment that the Trump team has put into North Korea in recent weeks, Pompeo also began the process of fleshing out the Singapore summit agreement that both sides claim establishes a new era in bilateral relations. Key among the measures agreed is a commitment to “working towards the complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula. It would be a remarkable achievement if Trump and Kim Jong-un are truly able to help preside over such a verifiable, comprehensive denuclearisation. While at the same time building a stable and lasting peace regime on the continent which would involve sealing a treaty between North and South to supplement the armistice ending the 1950-1953 Korea War; and in the process de-escalate tensions in the world’s last Cold War-era frontier.
Yet, much ambiguity remains in the Singapore text. Part of the challenge for the Trump team is to clarify this while managing expectations of the speed of delivery in 2018 and beyond.
On the one hand, the White House is looking for a big foreign policy win as soon as possible to crow about during the president’s anticipated re-election campaign for 2020. Yet, any final, comprehensive deal between Washington and Pyongyang could take longer. The potential complexity and tough nature of the talks is as high as those conducted by the administration of former US president Barack Obama over the Iran nuclear deal — much criticised by Trump — which took years to negotiate. Indeed, the last round of those talks alone — between Tehran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, China, Russia + Germany) — in 2015 lasted more than a week, the longest negotiation at a single site by a US secretary of state since at the least the 1978 Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt.
With difficult and potentially long talks to come, Trump would therefore benefit from a clearer strategy towards North Korea and indeed the peninsula at large. US National Security Adviser John Bolton previously sought to articulate a strategic approach when he spoke about the “Libyan model” to North Korean disarmament, which apparently spooked Kim with its implicit reference to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s fall from power after agreeing to dismantle his nascent nuclear weapons in 2003.
With the Libyan model now apparently cast aside, Bolton referred to a plan to see full Korean nuclear disarmament within 12 months. Yet, Pompeo has previously said he does not want to “put a timeline” on negotiations with Pyongyang.
Amidst this apparent confusion, the reason why Trump would benefit from a medium to long-term strategy, rather than relying too much on own immediate instincts, is that the next phases of negotiations have much complexity for the president around US alliances, the non-proliferation regime, and what exactly would constitute denuclearisation on the peninsula. One positive development here could be the swearing in last week of retired Navy admiral Harry Harris as the new US ambassador to South Korea — a key post that had remained vacant since Trump took office.
Harris, who had previously served as the commander of US forces in the Pacific, has rightly warned that Washington needs to keep its “eyes wide open” based on previous US attempts to get Pyongyang to denuclearise. This includes the six-party talks which fell down in 2008, mainly because North Korea refused to allow inspectors to verify that it had shut down its nuclear programmes. Several subsequent attempts have been made to restart the talks, but all collapsed. This included in 2012 when Pyongyang launched a missile two weeks after announcing a deal with Washington that had promised food aid in return for inspections and a moratorium on rocket tests.
As Harris is well aware, the success or failure of the post-Singapore summit talks are still likely to rest on the detail around Kim’s purported “commitment to denuclearisation”. To Trump, this appears to continue to mean unilateral disarmament.
Yet, for Kim, it is much more about potentially lengthy negotiations in which North Korea should be treated as an equal to the US, giving him further propaganda victories. In this context, Kim will probably remain wary about making concrete commitments on specific time frames and want to win further economic and political concessions from Trump, before any reduction in nuclear capabilities — let alone committing to full denuclearisation in its literal sense.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.