The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
On May 9, an unexpected situation occurred during U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s second visit to Pyongyang. During a meeting with North Korea’s Chairman of the State Affairs Commission Kim Jong-un, Pompeo handed a document to Kim. Kim gave it to Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party. After the meeting, Kim’s sister Yo-jong, who was waiting outside, dashed over and snatched the document that Kim Yong-chol was holding. The meeting took place behind glass panels, so Kim Yo-jong, who is vice director of the Workers’ Party, had been watching the whole time. Kim Yong-chol did not resist, or couldn’t. All American attendees witnessed the scene and talked about it.
After Pompeo’s fourth visit to Pyongyang was cancelled last week, people in Washington suspect Kim Yo-jong may be at the center of the North Korean diplomacy involving South Korea, the United States and China. Before and after the Singapore summit in June, Kim Jong-un was analyzed to be bold and smart, but he was considered to be someone whose expressions can be “read.” Kim Yong-chol, the head of the negotiation team, is stubborn but does not advise Kim with strategies and tactics. In the end, Kim Yo-jong is likely to be involved in all the scenarios, and a Japanese intelligence agency also made a similar analysis.
The problem is that the United States does not have solutions to break through the current impasse, which seems to be along the lines that Kim Yo-jong has intended. The difference in understanding between working-level officials in the U.S. administration and President Trump is growing.
Cancellation of Pompeo’s fourth visit shows the growing confusion. On Aug. 23, the visit was said to be happening next week, but a day later, it was canceled. There are reports that Trump canceled Pompeo’s visit after receiving a secret letter with a “beligerent” message from North Korea. But the cancellation symbolically shows a lack of both principle and plan on Washington’s part. Moreover, after the visit was canceled, Trump wrote, “Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved.” Trump effectively admitted that denuclearization is lower in priority than the U.S.-China trade dispute.
Although no one expects the trade war to end soon, Trump brought up the China issue. He has changed direction to highlight his image as a president who fights China by stressing the trade dispute rather than resolution of the nuclear issue for the midterm election. It should help get more votes for republicans. Officials work according to policies, but Trump follows politics and his own gut.
There seems to be no breakthrough ahead for the stalled North Korea-U.S. relations. Chinese President Xi Jinping is going to pursue a cozy relationship with North Korea regardless of Trump’s threats. The nuclear issue has become a complicated, multi-variable equation, or a third-class reality show starring Trump. The impasse came too soon. The possibility of Kim Jong-un attending the UN General Assembly in New York in late September is fading.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 29, Page 30