Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemingly failed to gain a single concession from North Korea after meetings Friday and Saturday in the communist nation’s capital of Pyongyang to discuss America’s demand that the North get rid its nuclear weapons.
In fact, it seems both sides can’t even agree on what was discussed or how the talks went, with the North now even threatening to walk away from its vague pledge to denuclearize.
Following Pompeo’s talks with high-ranking North Korean government official Kim Yong Chol, North Korea accused the Trump administration of making a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization” that was “deeply regrettable.”
In marked contrast, Pompeo called the talks “productive” and said: “These are complicated issues, but we made progress on almost all of the central issues.” However, Pompeo did not specify what progress was made.
Tellingly, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un – who rules with an iron fist and is the only one with the power to approve substantive concessions to the U.S. – did not even meet with Pompeo Friday or Saturday, although he has met with Pompeo before. That alone is evidence that Pompeo walked away from the talks largely emptyhanded.
This disappointing trip by the secretary of state can only mean one thing: The Trump administration has reached the same point that every other U.S. administration – Democrat and Republican – has reached with North Korea. When negotiations get to the point where North Korea must make concessions on its nuclear program that are substantive, officials from the North cry foul – and walk away.
Kim Jong Un seems to be carrying on a tradition in international relations begun by his grandfather and father, who ruled North Korea before him: lie, lie and lie again – and drag out talks with adversaries as long as possible without making any real concessions.
Mike Pompeo is not naive. In fact, the New York Times reported Saturday: “Privately, Mr. Pompeo has said that he doubts Mr. Kim will ever give up his nuclear weapons. And those doubts have been reinforced in recent days by intelligence showing that North Korea, far from dismantling its weapons facilities, has been expanding them and taking steps to conceal the efforts from the United States.”
North Korea is truly the land of lousy options. I fear we are headed right back to the brink with North Korea, all over again.
All this places the Trump administration in an awful bind. Clearly, we have reached a fork in the road when it comes to our dealings with Kim Jong Un that is looking more and more like a dead end.
After countless mid- and lower-level contacts between U.S. and North Korean officials, three sets of face-to-face talks between Pompeo and North Korean officials – and a historic summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore June 12 – America has received nothing but an ambiguous statement signed by Kim and President Trump in Singapore.
In that statement Kim reaffirmed his past pledge to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” without even defining what that means.
President Trump made a major concession simply by meeting with Kim, and then by halting joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea – a long-sought North Korean goal.
Once again, Pyongyang is following its tried and true diplomatic playbook of pocketing concessions and stalling for time.
This is where things get hard and the stakes jump dramatically. For there are only three possible paths for the Trump administration now, all of which are unappealing.
Option 1: A full U.S. military assault on North Korea to rid the world of Kim’s weapons of mass destruction.
Clearly, as I have laid out in these pages on several occasions, this a very risky gambit. There is virtually no way even our superpower-sized military can guarantee the destruction of as many as 65 nuclear weapons that North Korea is believed to possess.
North Korea’s nukes are scattered around the country and likely deep underground – so they can’t be destroyed in one bombing raid on a single target.
Following a U.S. attack on the North, Kim would have every incentive to counterattack with whatever nuclear weapons he has left – as well as his countless tons of chemical and as biological weapons. That would ensure that Seoul, Tokyo and maybe even Hawaii and major cities on America’s West Coast become the largest graveyards in human history.
This option if so horrific it is unlikely to be used by the U.S.
Option 2: A U.S. policy of containment of North Korea on steroids, or what the Trump administration called “maximum pressure.”
The idea of this option would be to cut North Korea off from the world diplomatically and economically.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley would call for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, demanding a full export ban on North Korea, as well as the halting of all natural resources (such as oil) going to the North.
Unfortunately, the maximum pressure campaign could be tough to put back in place, because it would be completely dependent on China, which is not exactly happy with the Trump administration these days after President Trump slapped tariffs on Chinese imports and launched a trade war Friday.
With 90 percent or more of North Korea’s exports rolling through China in one form or another, it seems highly unlikely that Beijing has any incentive to help Washington.
China will now use North Korea as a bargaining chip on trade and perhaps even other disputes it has with the U.S. and other nations – such as Chinese territorial claims to Taiwan and parts of the South China Sea and East China Sea.
And there is already evidence to suggest Beijing won’t enforce existing sanctions on North Korea for long – and might already have started to pull back.
Option 3: Accepting North Korea as a nuclear power and moving on to deal with the bigger threat of containing China.
Since America already deals with other nations that have nuclear weapons – Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan and Israel – reality may dictate that we must reluctantly accept North Korea as a member of the nuclear club.
President Trump would surely be attacked on the right for being soft and on the left for changing his position if he accepts North Korean nukes, but doing this would allow the U.S. to increase its diplomatic efforts all over Asia to push back against the growth of Chinese power.
Also, with the nuclear issue removed and Kim Jong Un feeling secure – knowing that his regime has the ultimate insurance policy in place – many of the other security challenges the North poses to the U.S. could be settled once and for all.
For example, a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War – halted by an armistice in 1953 – could be signed.
There could be major arms control agreements signed limiting the size, scope and scale of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, with international inspectors on the ground to ensure any promises made are promises kept.
The U.S. and South Korea could even remove economic sanctions on North Korea, allowing billions of dollars of investment to flow into the North. This might allow America and its allies a greater say in Pyongyang’s affairs – and maybe even dilute Beijing’s control.
But this all comes at a price. Accepting a nuclear North Korea could set off an arms race in the region, with Japan and South Korea possibly someday opting for their own nuclear weapons arsenals and increased missile defenses platforms. This could make China nervous, ensuring Beijing builds up its atomic arsenal and missile defenses as well.
Clearly, as many Asia hands love to point out, North Korea is truly the land of lousy options. We know one thing for certain: when it comes to Kim Jong Un, nothing is certain. Even after the Trump administration made important concessions, the North does not seem any closer to giving up its nukes.
I fear we are headed right back to the brink with North Korea, all over again.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.