White House chaos is the reason North Korea talks are faltering, not a fickle dictator

"America First"
"America First"

We have been here before. North Korea, a weaponized family-run dictatorship, seems close to an agreement with Western powers to disarm—only for things to fall apart before that happens.

North Korea is reconsidering holding a summit with Donald Trump, a senior diplomat said May 14. Past deals with the West—in 1985, 1995, and 2005—have also fallen apart.

But if Trump and Kim Jong-un fail to get a deal, or even meet, this time around, the Trump administration’s incoherent and rapidly shifting messaging will be as much to blame as the fickleness of North Korean leaders, a Korean peninsula expert says.

Soon after secretary of state Mike Pompeo returned from Pyongyang last week, it seemed clear that Kim had “made a commitment, in his mind, to get rid of part of his program in order to get sanctions relief and economic aid,” says Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a Virginia research group, who has written three books on North Korean leadership. Indeed, on May 11, Pompeo said that conversations between him and Kim were “warm.” South Korea’s foreign minister said it had been “very clear that the sanctions [would] remain in place until and unless we see visible, meaningful action taken by North Korea on the denuclearization track.”

Gause says that rhetoric indicates a process over time, in which North Korea would get some rewards ahead of completely destroying its nuclear weapons and manufacturing capability.

But the US’s public demands quickly morphed. Two days after his post-Pyongyang presser, Pompeo said in an interview with CBS the the US expected “complete and total denuclearization of North Korea, and it is the President’s intention to achieve that.” He added that the US would lift sanctions and allow private US investors into the country “if we get denuclearization.” The same day, he told Fox News: “If we get what it is the President has demanded–the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea,” rewards could include electricity and infrastructure investment “in spades.”

Also on May 13, Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, went even further, telling ABC that denuclearization was non-negotiable. He said North Korea’s ballistic missiles, chemical, and biological weapons need to be addressed before the “benefits begin to flow.”

Now, Gause says, North Korea is “worried that they had the US on board for an agreement to ease sanctions, [which] seems to have gone south over the weekend.” The country is threatening to nix its meeting with Trump as a means of pressuring the US to reconsider.

Crafting any agreement with North Korea—really, negotiating with dictators in general—would normally be political suicide for US politicians. But thanks to Trump’s loyal voter base, a group Gause says Congress is “scared to death of,” Trump could negotiate a deal and still maintain support for Republicans. “Trump is the only president in recent memory who could pull this off,” Gause says.

The problem is, it’s impossible to tell whether Trump and his administration have any strategic plan on North Korea, or if they’re just “winging it,” he said. Bolton has said he wants a preemptive strike (paywall), while Pompeo, Guase says, is twisting in the wind: “One day he’s offering a compromise, the next day he’s taking the hardline.” Trump, meanwhile, is likely to listen to whoever he spoke to last.

The National Security Council, the White House, and State Department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The White House said Wednesday morning that the turnaround was “fully expected,” despite the fact that Trump last week announced a date for his meeting with Kim, calling it a “special moment for World Peace.”

Later in the day, Trump gave what has become his standard reply on North Korea: “We’ll see what happens.”

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