If nothing else, the Deal-maker-in-Chief’s meeting in June with Kim Jong Un provided a couple of months of relief from unsettling rhetoric about whose bombs were bigger and who was crazy enough to use them.
But little else has changed in the relationship between the United States and North Korea. Both sides getting frustrated again. Citing a lack of progress, President Trump canceled a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his newly appointed special envoy this week. On Pompeo’s last visit, Kim declined to see him and the North Koreans gave him a rhetorical kick on his way out the door.
The canceled visit had been called a moment of truth for the relationship. Now that it’s off, are we entering a downward spiral back to “fire and fury?” Maybe not. Trump might decide that he has more to gain by reverting to his tough-guy stance against Kim. Also, recall that Trump canceled the June summit meeting before rescheduling. And while it’s next to impossible to predict what Kim will do, he has an incentive to keep the process moving – slowly — while giving up little of substance.
Long-term, Kim needs to improve his economy. And he must be paying attention to Trump’s domestic problems. Even taking into account Trump’s volatility, Kim is better off not doing anything to strengthen the hand of the many North Korea skeptics in Congress and policy hawks such as National Security Adviser John Bolton.
One recent report in South Korea speculated that Kim had planned to hand Pompeo a list of North Korean nuclear sites. That’s something the U.S. wants – but it doesn’t mean Kim would provide a complete list, much less halt work at them.
The summit meeting in June between Kim and Trump didn’t change the fundamental nature of the dispute between their two countries. North Korea wants a formal end to the state of war and an easing of economic sanctions. Washington wants a quick end to North Korea’s nuclear program. Even if the two sides more or less trusted each other (which they don’t), one meeting was never going to provide a blueprint for who does what when, and how each side would verify the other’s actions.
Since then, Kim has been all about style over substance. He continues to try to improve relations with South Korea. North Korea has agreed to the renewal of visits by elderly family members who were divided by the Korean War. For his part, South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed a broad expansion in economic cooperation, which could easily go further than Washington would like. Moon is planning to travel to Pyongyang next month for a meeting with Kim.
North Korea also has begun repatriating artifacts and remains of U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War.
In his public appearances, Kim has been focusing intensely on North Korea’s economy rather than on the country’s nuclear or missile programs, prompting some analysts to speculate that he’s trying to signal Washington that he’d give up his nukes if the price was right.
What he hasn’t done, according to a report to the U.N. Security Council this month, is take steps to scale back those missile and nuclear programs, stop cheating on sanctions or halt weapons sales. North Korea has been getting petroleum products and coal via ship-to-ship transfers at sea in order to avoid sanctions, and that it has tried to sell arms to Libya, Yemen and Sudan. Its activities have made financial sanctions ineffective.
U.S. reports indicate spy satellites have detected continued activity at a North Korean missile site. A report Aug. 20 by the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Kim is continuing his nuclear program.
Of course he is. Nuclear weapons represent a very sizeable insurance policy. He won’t cash it unless and until he gets an acceptable deal from Washington.
Kim knows he could be taken down by the United States — or by his own people. He is still a young man, and he probably realizes that he can’t duplicate the feat accomplished by his father and grandfather — keep a tight lid on North Korea, and survive to a reasonably old age. He has promised a better economy, and indications are that North Koreans are getting the message. The country already has changed a lot.
He is setting himself up for the problem faced by every strongman who tries to ease up — even a little. He needs to keep up with the expectations of his people, who are in the words of North Korea analyst Ruediger Frank, “now as materialistic, greedy and unsatisfied as their comrades in the Soviet Union and East Germany once were, and as are most of us in the West.”
If he succeeds, he might emulate the Chinese, and the Chinese will help him if he plays ball. If he fails, he gets swept into the dustbin of history like Mikhail Gorbachev and Erich Honecker — or planted before a firing squad like Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu.
At some point, he’ll have to judge how much time he has and whether the deal on offer is sweet enough. But not just yet. Now is a time for mollifying China, wooing South Korea and keeping the Americans talking.