Security and Foreign Policy

Secretary Pompeo Returns Home Empty Handed

Following Mike Pompeo's third visit to North Korea, the North Korean Foreign Ministry lambasted the conduct of the United States in a statement. The move straight out of the Pyongyang playbook raises concerns about negotiations getting nowhere. Andy Laub explains why.


U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned home Saturday from his two day trip to North Korea with little to show for his follow-up efforts to last month’s summit in Singapore between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Just minutes after Secretary Pompeo left Pyongyang, the North Korean Foreign Ministry released a statement calling the United States conduct during the talks “deeply regrettable” and even “gangster like” specifically referring to the “unilateral demand for denuclearization.” Complete Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID) is a term that is often thrown around a lot in the disarmament community, especially in reference to North Korea because of its desirability. But pragmatically speaking it is hard to see the North Koreans ever agreeing to that given the importance it has put in its nuclear weapons program as being central to the Kim regime’s survival. In comparison, with Iran, phased in sanctions relief was linked to Iran’s compliance with the de-nuclearization, which they still continue to be even after the United States withdrew. Secretary Pompeo left the talks calling them “productive”; that sort of vague language in diplomacy suggests at the very least there is a lot more to be done. Pompeo wasn’t even able to secure the release of the remains of fallen American soldiers from the Korean War, but rather secured a process for those talks to resume at the DMZ on the sidelines of nuclear talks. President Trump prematurely promised that North Korea had sent 200 remains back to the United States, before any such agreement had been reached. It is also a bad sign that on his third trip to North Korea Kim Jong-Un did not meet with Secretary Pompeo when the previous two times he did.

One important thing to keep in mind as talks between the United States and the DPRK continue, North Korea has not conceded anything yet. The United States has given Kim Jong-Un legitimacy on the world stage by getting a meeting on equal footing with a sitting U.S President, a long sought after goal by the DPRK. At the same time, the United States suspended its military drills with South Korea, a long held point of contention with the North as they see it as practicing for war. But it is very important to the US’ South Korean allies as a confidence building measure while Kim Jong-Un seeks to undermine the US-ROK alliance. The North Koreans have approached these talks very strategically to position themselves thus far successfully to have the upper hand on the United States for when it comes time to walk away, they will feel emboldened and be able to more comfortably blame the United States for the failure of the talks. As former Secretary of State James Baker use to say in diplomatic negotiations “don’t let the dead cat die on your door step”; if a process is going to fail you want the other side to bear the blame. On the contrary, the Trump administration has not presented a clear strategy or framework for how these negotiations are going to move forward, what the realistic goals are and benchmarks on meeting them. The administration and particularly Secretary Pompeo made a smart gesture last week in removing CVID and denuclearization from its language and changing it to “mutually assured threat” to try and narrow the gap between how the U.S and North Korea envision a negotiation over the their nuclear weapons program; while the U.S sees it as threat North Korea sees it as regime survival. However, those language changes and appearance of softening on the U.S side doesn’t seem to have played a constructive role in this past weekend’s bilateral negotiations. When using the terms “CVID”, “denuclearization” or offering economic aid in exchange for denuclearization, North Korea is not going to see those as anything but a Trojan horse for regime change, even if they smile and nod during negotiations. They see Muammar Gaddafi giving up his nuclear arsenal in Libya only to be overthrown and killed and Mikhail Gorbachev seeking to liberalize the Soviet Union’s economy only to see the entire system collapse.

It is important to remember that North Korea has used this same playbook before in previous agreements, get some concessions from the United States to buy time while making improvements to their nuclear weapons program. In fact intelligence reports in recent days have surfaced that the DPRK has continued to expand their program at secret facilities. After moments of tension, North Korea puts on a charm offensive as they did starting with the Olympics, back in February, claiming they are willing to denuclearize for regime security guarantees- starting with gentle concessions that they ramp up and ultimately the parties walk away with so much time having been wasted. This was the case with the six party talks under the Bush Administration which went on for almost five years before the North Koreans eventually walked out. In those previous agreements, the North Koreans agreed to greater commitments to denuclearization that they still violated; Trump failed to secure much less while in Singapore. Former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken under the Obama administration referred to it as the “string, ring, walk away” strategy in-terms of trying to obtain some sanctions relief, prolong the negotiations before eventually walking away. The Trump administration would be well advised to add to a relatively thin team leading the U.S side of the negotiations; Secretary Pompeo obviously has to handle the entire world, Ambassador Sung Kim who has been spearheading bilateral talks at the DMZ is a very capable longtime Foreign Service Officer, but he is now Ambassador to another country in the Philippines. Trump and Pompeo would do well to appoint a special envoy for North Korea policy to replace Ambassador Joseph Yun, who retired in February. On such a complex issue, the U.S needs the best and most experienced negotiators. Furthermore, the administration should clearly outline its goals for the negotiations as best it can, including getting North Korea to declare certain nuclear test sites and on narrowing the gap of the U.S-DPRK understanding of “CVID” as more of a “mutual threat reduction” to reduce tensions on both sides. The more the core of diplomatic negotiations are left so vague, the more North Korea will continue to use it to their advantage pushing both sides apart as the talks would almost certainly fail. If these talks are going to have any measure of success, something new must be thrown into the mix. Secretary Pompeo has consistently said he is approaching these negotiations with his “eyes wide open” regarding the failure of previous administrations to secure a nuclear arms agreement with North Korea. But, at least so far, he seems to be falling into the same trap as his predecessors; future negotiations will need to be more substantial if they are going to succeed.

Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.

Photo Credit: NY Times/Andrew Harnik

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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