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Fiddling With Travel Schedules Won’t Make North Korea Denuclearize

Now you see the diplomatic trip to Pyongyang—now you don't!

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his trip next week to Pyongyang with former White House and congressional staffer Steve Biegun, the Trump administration’s new Special Representative for North Korea. Scarcely 24 hours later, on Friday, President Donald Trump asked Pompeo to delay his trip because of a lack of progress with North Korea. But Trump still sent, he added via Twitter, his “warmest regards to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”

Steve Biegun may be wondering what he signed up for.

Since giving the diplomatic world whiplash at his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, President Donald Trump has been spinning his North Korea policy as a victory. After the summit Trump falsely declared over Twitter that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” He has since integrated his claim of success into his stump speech at rallies.

The reality, of course, is quite different. Despite repeated assertions by the Trump administration that Kim Jong Un agreed to give up his nuclear weapons, Kim agreed to no such thing. Since the Singapore summit, both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Trump’s own Secretary of State have confirmed that North Korea continues to expand its nuclear capabilities. Months after the summit, North Korea appears to believe that it has been given the seal of approval as a nuclear power by the U.S. president, while the United States continues to demand that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons.

What, then, does the new special representative and the cancelled Pompeo trip mean?

Appointing an envoy on its own is good: A full-time envoy that has the backing of the secretary of state and White House is a precondition for success in talks. And Pompeo’s willingness to go back to Pyongyang again and again, combined with the appointment of this representative, is a sign of his investment in these talks.

And yet, the State Department personnel isn’t the problem. The career diplomats leading the diplomacy in recent months are first rate. And Pompeo has been personally engaged—next week will mark his fourth trip to North Korea in a matter of months.

The problem lies in the Oval Office. While the  turn towards diplomacy was necessary, the president  pulled the rug out from under his own negotiators from day one. By agreeing to a summit from the start—a propaganda coup for Kim Jong Un—Trump removed the incentive for North Korea to make concessions,  all but guaranteeing that nothing of substance would come out of the summit. Knowing that the summit was happening, North Korean negotiators could run out the clock on their U.S. counterparts, giving away nothing.

Ever since then, Trump has consistently made clear that he sees his diplomacy with North Korea as a victory, again de-incentivizing any movement on the North Korean’s side. North Korea has repeatedly used Trump’s own rhetoric against U.S. negotiators, portraying U.S. officials as “going against the intention of President Trump to advance DPRK-U.S. relations,” while North Korea claims that it is “unchanged in [its] will to uphold the intentions of the top leaders of the DPRK and the U.S.” After Pompeo’s last trip to Pyongyang in July, North Korean state media blasted what they called the United States’ “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.” In August, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho criticized the U.S. for trying to go back on its “leader’s intention.”

If North Korea believes that U.S. diplomats do not speak for Trump, then North Korea is likely to continue praising Trump while criticizing his officials and stonewalling at the negotiating table.

Inextricably linked to this divide within the Trump administration has been a lack of clarity from Washington about whether it would accept a gradual, step-by-step process—a freeze on fissile material production, a declaration of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, for example—or whether it is requiring North Korea to get rid of its weapons immediately.

Trump’s latest Twitter intervention on North Korea policy may look like a step in the right direction, at least acknowledging the disconnect between presidential propaganda and actual progress, but doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. The presidential cancellation of Pompeo’s trip could be illustrative of the ongoing internal U.S. government battle over North Korea policy - in May, it was likely the intervention of National Security Advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence that convinced Trump to briefly cancel the Singapore Summit.

If Trump were willing to work in tandem with his senior officials to send clear signals, that could increase the chances of progress in diplomacy. But Trump’s friendly tweets to “Chairman Kim”—including indicating his intent of holding another summit meeting—immediately undermined the pressure of postponing Pompeo’s trip. If anything, this may reaffirm for the North Koreans that they only need to deal directly with Trump.  

Meanwhile, North Korea’s diplomatic thaw with its neighbors continues. Talks between North and South Korea continue, as South Korean President Moon Jae-in prepares to travel to Pyongyang in September. Chinese President Xi Jinping is also reportedly going to North Korea in September. And despite more sanctions from the United States, the “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea appears dead, killed the moment Trump met with Kim Jong Un. And as this all moves forward, so do North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea may be willing to take concrete steps to roll back its nuclear programs, but we need real diplomacy to test that possibility. The Secretary of State seems ready. We now have a new Special Representative. But as long as Trump can’t coordinate consistently with his own team, North Korea seems unlikely to make significant concessions—regardless of how many envoys get sent to Pyongyang, or how many foreign policy shifts are announced on Twitter.