Three irreversible mistakes
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
What awaited U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the afternoon of July 7 as he arrived in Tokyo from his third visit to Pyongyang was a statement from North Korea’s foreign ministry. Only five hours earlier, Pompeo had said his third trip to North Korea was productive, but North Korea called him “gangster-like.” An expected meeting with Kim Jong-un did not happen either.
What was Pompeo thinking at that moment of humiliation? There are many factors that led to the current situation. But while denuclearization talks are underway, let’s review the three irreversible mistakes in the negotiations singled out by Washington’s foreign policy experts.
First, the United States took the helm of the negotiations by announcing a cancellation of the Singapore summit, only to blow it. Washington considered North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-kwan’s statement and Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party Kim Yong-chol’s White House visit as signs of surrender. That was Pompeo’s misjudgment. With no assurances, he announced the resumption of the Singapore meeting on June 12 less than one minute after Kim Yong-chol left the White House. National Security Advisor John Bolton warned that it was a typical North Korean trap, but no one listened.
A few days later, the North’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui told Sung Kim, current U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines and a U.S. negotiator for the denuclearization talks, “Cancel it again if you can!” Pyongyang saw that Washington couldn’t reverse itself again. A former high-level official in Washington said that Pompeo was smart but may not be a great negotiator. He lacks understanding of North Korea’s tactics, the official said.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s shortsighted judgment and the South Korean government’s impatient acceptance of the decision contributed to the fiasco. They could have maintained joint exercises but not deployed strategic assets. Resuming the exercises now would only give North Korea an excuse to break the deal. Returning home empty-handed, Pompeo will most likely face harsh questioning by Congress.
Third, the United States mistook — or distorted, if you will — the North’s will for denuclearization and set up a wrong framework for negotiations. As Washington had been inconsistent on key issues such as CVID, which later changed to FFVD, and the denuclearization timeline from six months to two and half years to no timeline, it could not afford to devise its negotiating strategy effectively. If Trump was incapable, his administration should have stepped in. But no one did.
As time goes on, North Korea’s negotiating leverage grows thanks to the backing of China and division in the United States in the face of the enemy. In its statement, North Korea attacked the United States for making unilateral and gangster-like demands such as CVID, reporting and verification. How is any denuclearization possible without reports on the nuclear assets of North Korea verification? At the end of it all, the U.S. idea of denuclearization was very different from North Korea’s.
Some pundits say North Korea’s rhetoric is a negotiating tactic. Even if they are right, it only proves that Pyongyang is leading the negotiations. Uncle Sam talks about maximum pressure, but it is too late.
Talks are necessary, and the goal is peaceful denuclearization. But the reality should not be ignored. South Korea and the United States must deal with North Korea objectively and calmly. With only four months left before the November midterm election in America, we should be wary of the possibility of Washington and Pyongyang striking a big deal unexpectedly. This is no time to leisurely say, “Rome was not built in a day.” Not just the United States but South Korea could make a complete and irreversible mistake at any moment if they approach denuclearization naively.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 11, Page 30