Despite spin from US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike on the progress of denuclearization talks with North Korea, optimism is fast giving way to skepticism. The biggest problem is that the North is seen turning to what an expert called its old playbook.
Commenting on what is believed to be an “empty-handed” return from a visit to Pyongyang by Pompeo last week, Trump tweeted that he had confidence that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would honor the agreement they signed in Singapore one month ago.
Pompeo also said that the commitment that Kim personally made to Trump remains and has been reinforced. The top diplomat also said that the North Korean statement that followed his visit to Pyongyang continued to express Kim’s “desire to complete the denuclearization to which he is so committed.”
But these comments are nothing but face-saving political rhetoric. It is obvious that the North -- as it did in the past -- is seeking to set the terms and pace of the negotiation, without taking concrete denuclearization actions.
When you deal with the North Koreans, you should be able to interpret well even what are seen as small, minor things. In the case of Pompeo’s recent visit, it was apparent that they wanted to show and say that there were in charge: The talks took place in Pyongyang, not a third country like Singapore, and they did not set the date and site of the next round of talks. It may be again up to the North to decide when and where they will happen.
They even did not tell Pompeo beforehand where he would be staying in Pyongyang for the two-day visit. Kim Jong-un avoided meeting the secretary, unlike on his two previous visits. All these demonstrate the North Koreans’ attitude – we decide everything and others should just accept and follow.
What’s further troubling is that the North’s latest statement accusing the US side of pushing “unilateral, gangster-like” denuclearization demands indicates that it is resorting to its usual delaying and disruption tactics, which has often led to brinkmanship.
Victor Cha, a top US expert on North Korea, said that Pompeo had a “rough go” and he was trying to “put lipstick on a pig.” Cha said that the North Koreans are playing from the same play book as 10 years ago, by calling demands unreasonable and aggressive.
An increasing number of US congressmen are joining the school of skeptics, who warn the Trump administration against giving premature concessions to the North like the suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, says that it was a “mistake” to give the military exercises up. He expressed worries about the ability to act interoperably with South Korea, calling on the administration to “reconsider” the decision at some future time. The senator added that such action is necessary particularly if the negotiations go on for a long time.
“And that’s what you’d have to expect from the North Koreans, is, again, foot dragging, standard operating procedure,” he said.
The China factor is also making the matter more complicated. Trump tweeted that China may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of the US’ war on Chinese trade.
Pompeo also pointed out previously that China had modestly eased economic sanctions against North Korea in recent weeks, following three successive summits between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Now news reports flourish about active China-North Korea border trade, illegal oil transfers at sea and an increase of Chinese tourists to the North.
Reflecting the reality, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said that China’s fingerprints are all over the denuclearization talks. “We are in a fight with China,” Graham said in an interview, adding that “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the Chinese pulling the North Koreans back.”
All these strengthen the need to retain the sanctions and if necessary, add up the pressure and even revoke the decision to suspend major South Korea-US military drills. All concerned parties ought to be reminded that the maximum pressure -- the harshest sanctions the North has ever faced -- was the main factor for Kim’s decision to come to the negotiation table.