No quick fixes in North Korean denuclearization efforts
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is traveling to North Korea on Thursday for the first time since last month’s Singapore summit. The trip comes amidst media coverage of new US intelligence claims that Pyongyang has this year increased its production of fuel for nuclear weapons, even as it has engaged in intensive diplomacy with Washington, raising question marks over the future of the negotiation process.
The revelations are an embarrassment for the White House after Donald Trump’s assertions last month that there was “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, including over ending US military drills with South Korea.
A key reason why Pompeo’s visit is so important is that the Trump team now needs to re-establish, in light of the US intelligence reports, Pyongyang’s readiness to engage in serious negotiations. Pompeo will be looking for 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, it will also be key for Pompeo to start fleshing out the Singapore summit agreement that both sides claim establishes a new era in bilateral relations. Key amongst the measures agreed is a commitment to “working toward the complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.
It would be a remarkable achievement if Trump and Kim Jong Un are truly able to help preside over a verifiable, comprehensive denuclearization, while at the same time building a stable and lasting peace regime on the continent. The latter would involve sealing a treaty between North and South to supplement the armistice ending the Korean War, and in the process de-escalating tensions in the world’s final Cold War-era frontier.
Yet much ambiguity remains in the text of the agreement. Part of the challenge for the Trump team is clarifying this whilst 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, which kicks off in 2020. But any final comprehensive deal between Washington and Pyongyang could take longer.
The potential complexity and tough nature of the talks are as high as those conducted by the Obama administration over the Iran nuclear deal — much criticized by Trump — which took years to negotiate. Indeed, the last round of those talks alone, between Tehran and the P5+1 in 2015, lasted well over a week: The longest negotiation at a single site by a US secretary of state since at least the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.
It would be a remarkable achievement if Trump and Kim Jong Un are truly able to help preside over a verifiable, comprehensive denuclearization, while at the same time building a stable and lasting peace regime on the continent
With difficult and potentially long negotiations to come, Trump would benefit from a clearer strategy toward North Korea and indeed the peninsula as a whole. US National Security Adviser John Bolton previously came closest to articulating a strategic approach when he talked about the “Libyan model” to North Korean disarmament, which apparently spooked Kim with its implicit reference to Muammar Gaddafi’s fall from power after agreeing to dismantle his nascent nuclear weapons in 2003.
With the Libyan model now apparently cast aside, the reason why Trump would benefit from a medium to long-term strategy, rather than relying too much on immediate instincts, is that the coming phases of negotiation have much complexity for the president around US alliances, the non-proliferation regime, and what exactly would constitute denuclearization on the peninsula. One positive development here could be the swearing in on Saturday of Retired Navy Adm. Harry Harris as the new US ambassador to South Korea; a key post that had remained vacant since Trump took office.
Harris, who previously served as the commander of US forces in the Pacific, has rightly warned that Washington needs its “eyes wide open” based on previous US attempts to get Pyongyang to denuclearize. This includes the six-party talks that came to an end in 2009. Several subsequent attempts have been made to restart these talks, but all collapsed. This included in 2012, when Pyongyang launched a missile just a month 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 ultimately rest on the detail around Kim’s purported “commitment to denuclearization.” 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 very wary about making concrete commitments on specific time-frames, and will want to win further economic and political concessions from Trump before any reduction in its nuclear capabilities, let alone committing to full denuclearization in its literal sense.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics