Striking an upbeat tone in front of the press after concluding talks in New York City with North Korea’s Kim Yong Chol, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday there had been “real progress” making preparations for an expected summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un.
Yes, the progress was undoubtedly real, but for whom?
The answer: North Korea.
Up until this week, the U.S. had made no concessions of any consequence to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The North, on the other hand, made two important ones to the U.S. First, the regime released three American detainees last month when Pompeo flew to Pyongyang.
Second, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Kim, at their April 27 summit in the Demilitarized Zone, pledged to give up his nuclear weapons for nothing more than an American pledge not to attack his regime and Washington’s signing a treaty to formally end the Korean War.
Moreover, Moon said Kim repeated his complete-denuclearization pledge at his surprise May 26 summit with the North Korean.
Kim was almost certainly cynical in making his “denuclearization” promises, but he nonetheless created markers to which the United States, South Korea, and the rest of the international community could hold him.
Kim apparently made those crucial commitments to obtain a historic summit with Trump. And at this point it looks like the goal of North Korea’s leader may be nothing more than shaking hands with the American.
Why is the act of meeting so important to Kim? When he meets Trump, Kim scores his first prize from the U.S. The North Korean, now perceived as the leader of the world’s most atrocious regime, instantly gains legitimacy, seen on the same level as the world’s most powerful figure.
Among other things, images of the pair together, which will be seen in North Korean propaganda for years, solidify Kim’s shaky-looking rule at home.
Trump can minimize the loss of leverage if, before the historic meeting, he obtains directly from Kim four pledges: promises to surrender all nuclear weapons; to turn over all intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles; to dismantle his extensive weapons infrastructure; and to permit ongoing verification of these pledges.
In addition, Trump needs to obtain two more commitments from Kim. For staunch ally Japan—and to make good on his own word to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—the American president needs Kim to promise to surrender short-range missiles and to provide an accounting of the Japanese abductees, citizens kidnapped by Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather.
With all those commitments from Kim, Trump can, with an acceptable loss of leverage, proceed to meet with Kim and thereby provide the legitimization the young leader craves.
At one point, it appeared Trump and Pompeo would stand firm and require the Kimster to make all six promises before allowing the summit to take place.
Now, after the recent New York meetings with Kim Yong Chol, Kim Jong Un’s envoy, the U.S. looks like it is wavering. Pompeo, at his Thursday press availability, provided only the vaguest of answers to Bloomberg’s Nick Wadhams. When asked whether Kim Yong Chol had during their meetings conveyed a “historic commitment,” the secretary of state would only say this: “We had all the time we needed today to make the progress that was achievable during our time here in New York City.”
“I will tell you we’ve made real progress in the last 72 hours toward setting the conditions, right—so your question really goes to what are the conditions,” Pompeo said in response to a question from ABC News’s Martha Raddatz at the same press event. “The conditions are putting President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un in a place where we think there could be real progress made by the two of them meeting.”
Pompeo’s boss was also lowering expectations Thursday. “I’d like to see it done in one meeting,” Trump said on Air Force One on his way to Houston, referring to the disarmament of North Korea. “But oftentimes that’s not the way deals work.” And then Trump dropped a stunner: “There’s a very good chance that it won’t be done in one meeting or two meetings or three meetings.”
Maybe four meetings? Trump so far has had Kim Jong Un on the run. The president’s masterful withdrawal from the summit during the morning of Thursday, May 24 turned the North Koreans from belligerent to meek in just a matter of hours.
Perhaps Trump knows what he’s doing, but multiple meetings on disarmament seem not to be in the interests of the international community.
The United States in general holds real leverage over North Korea, even if Kim gets his meeting with Trump, perhaps in Singapore on June 12. The North Korean primarily needs sanctions relief from Washington. As The Wall Street Journal reported this week, a U.S. government estimate shows that sanctions have halved the North’s revenue from foreign sources.
Yet U.S. efforts might not matter much in the long run. China and Russia in recent months have been blatantly violating U.N. rules and could increase their efforts to compensate for the recent fall-off in cash to North Korea.
And Moscow and Beijing could up their diplomatic support. Most recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Pyongyang on Thursday and called for lifting sanctions as he met Kim Jong Un. The North Korean regime, therefore, may think it can get all the cash it needs elsewhere.
Kim Yong Chol goes to the White House Friday to deliver to Trump a letter from Kim Jong Un. The president thinks the message will be “very positive.” If the letter does not contain firm commitments, however, the U.S. may want to put the planned summit on hold.