Trump reversal on Pompeo North Korea trip underscores drift

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. (Bloomberg pic)

WASHINGTON: Donald Trump’s surprise about-face on his top diplomat’s trip to North Korea — just a day after it was announced — reinforced a sense of drift in the administration’s strategy since the president proclaimed a June summit with Kim Jong Un a historic success.

The tweets cancelling a visit to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo cited a lack of “sufficient progress” in denuclearisation talks, two months after he proclaimed on Twitter that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

The decision “reflects poor coordination on the administration’s North Korea policy,” Bruce Klingner, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and now an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, said in a tweet. “The diplomatic road ahead is much longer and bumpier than originally depicted by President Trump.”

In the weeks since the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, the administration has struggled to show any signs of progress in its efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which surprised intelligence analysts last year with its rapid development. Pompeo conceded before the Senate recently that Kim’s regime continues producing fissile material and has provided no inventory of its nuclear program and facilities.

In addition, Pompeo was spending more of his time shoring up support for the tough international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang last year. And on his last two meetings with North Korean officials, including a “polite” exchange with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Singapore this month, Pompeo’s proclamations of progress were undercut by Kim’s aides and state-run media, who have assailed US strategy as “cancerous” and “gangster-like.”

Trump’s decision came after he discussed North Korea at a meeting Friday that included Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and the new envoy to North Korean talks, Steve Biegun, said two administration officials familiar with the talks.

The appointment of Biegun, a Ford Motor Co. official who once worked at the National Security Council, came on Thursday with news that he and Pompeo would travel to Pyongyang to resume talks as early as this weekend.

South Korea Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told Pompeo in a phone call that any delay to his visit was “regrettable,” according to a ministry statement released Saturday in Seoul.

China Talks
Trump’s move also followed two days of trade talks with Chinese officials in Washington that ended without progress, a fact the president alluded to in his decision about the Pyongyang trip.

“I have asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to go to North Korea, at this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” Trump tweeted.

“Additionally, because of our much tougher Trading stance with China, I do not believe they are helping with the process of denuclearisation as they once were (despite the UN Sanctions which are in place)…”

China said it remained committed to full North Korean denuclearisation, and called any suggestion that its policy had changed “irresponsible,” according to a statement Saturday on the website of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, citing spokesman Lu Kang’s response to reporters.

The US has leaned heavily on China to help enforce the tougher sanctions regime imposed in 2017 because Beijing is North Korea’s largest trading partner and shares a border with the isolated nation.

In recent weeks, however, there have been signs that the sanctions are starting to weaken, while South Korea has moved ahead with initiatives aimed at improving ties with Pyongyang. That prompted the State Department to say “progress on inter-Korean relations must happen in lockstep with progress on denuclearisation.”

Where there has been progress in North Korean-US relations recently, they have been on issues seen in the US as more peripheral to the central goal of denuclearisation. For example, North Korea delivered what it said were US remains from the Korean War to the US for examination and identification. But Pyongyang has also said the US is too focused on the nuclear issue.

As US-North Korea talks remain in a stalemate, South Korea has moved to improve relations, announcing this week that it would set up a liaison office at an industrial park it sponsors in North Korea. That followed a set of reunions this week between families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Trade Dispute
Trump’s mention of China may be an effort to get Beijing to see that help resolving trade disputes are more valuable than weakening resolve over North Korean sanctions.

But the trade war between the US and China is primed to escalate further after their respective governments failed to make progress in two days of talks this week in Washington. The two sides met with low expectations for the meetings and no further talks have been scheduled, a person familiar with the discussions said.

In his Twitter posts, Trump signalled that he expects high-level talks with North Korea to resume soon, and sought to downplay the idea that his decision might be seen as a snub of Kim, with whom he says he’s forged a good working relationship.

See You Soon!
“I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!” Trump tweeted.

The Heritage Foundation’s Klingner, however, warned that Washington is being led down a path that has bedevilled a succession of US administrations.

“North Korea has resorted to its usual negotiating tactics of the past two decades to drag out negotiations and eke out benefits even for incremental progress on peripheral matters…while holding back progress on the real issue of denuclearisation,” he said.