The North must talk to Biegun
The author is the senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate an professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
U.S.-North Korea negotiations are at an impasse. North Korea refuses to deal with anyone other than U.S. President Donald Trump and is increasing the heat on the United States with new missile tests.
While those launches were labelled “tactical” and were not the longer-range nuclear-purposed missiles that created the current crisis, the recent launches are nevertheless disturbing. For one thing, they were clearly meant to signal that North Korea is prepared to escalate if its demands for sanctions-lifting are not met. Second, the tests occurred after Kim Jong-un’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which could indicate that Kim thinks he will have cover from Moscow — if not Beijing — as he escalates. And third, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the launches by saying he was focused on the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat to the United States, the launches nevertheless could be violations of United Nations (UN) Security Council sanctions. At a minimum, the tests risk dividing the United States from Japan — which has been clear that Washington must not “decouple” from allies in Asia by cutting a deal on ICBMs that leaves North Korea free to continue expanding its arsenal of shorter-ranged missiles, as Pompeo’s comments seemed to suggest.
No talks, Russian diplomatic cover for Pyongyang, divisions among U.S. allies, the initiative seized by Pyongyang and continued expansion of North Korea’s arsenal: This is not a good situation.
Diplomacy with North Korea is never easy but Trump has probably made this particular situation even worse. At first Trump’s summit in Singapore appeared to be a bold move — but then Trump handed three big onside goals to Kim. Number one: he believed that Kim’s promise to “denuclearize the Korean Peninsula” represented an actual commitment to eliminate the North’s nuclear weapons when it was really a rehashed promise to do so only after the U.S. nuclear deterrent is also eliminated. Second, Trump unilaterally froze U.S.-South Korea military exercises despite his administration’s claims that there was no equivalency between lawful U.S.-South Korea exercises and North Korea’s unlawful nuclear and missile programs. The “freeze-for-freeze” deal that should have been put on the table was a freeze on expanded sanctions in exchange for a freeze on North Korean missile and nuclear tests, but it is too late now. Third — and perhaps most damaging— Trump insisted on being the lone prima donna in his dramatic love story with Kim.
Given these three mistakes, it is unsurprising that Kim wrote in his letter to Trump that the North would not deal with Pompeo and instead expected to negotiate with Trump. Trump apparently told Japanese Prime Minister Abe before Singapore that he does not prepare for big negotiations, preferring instead to go with his gut instincts. Yet nuclear diplomacy is technical and complex. If Trump does not want to personally prepare, he should at least let his experts do so in negotiations with the North before the actual summit meeting.
Steven Biegun and his very capable team tried to do just that before Hanoi, Vietnam, but the North Korean side was holding out its final offer for the meeting with Trump since they had learned that he would be the softest and least prepared counterpart they would have. When Kim offered inspections, verification and notional dismantlement of Yongbyon facilities in exchange for substantially all sanctions-lifting, it became obvious to the U.S. delegation that the North was offering a new version of the Agreed Framework — the Yongbyon-only deal. But this time, the North was surprised when Trump said no. While it is tempting to blame that outcome on John Bolton’s rumored last-minute sabotage, a much more plausible scenario is that the U.S. team prepared Trump for this negotiation much more than they were able to do for the Singapore meeting. Trump recognized that what Kim put on the table was far short of real denuclearization or even step toward denuclearization. It was essentially Kim’s terms for limiting — not eliminating — his nuclear weapons programs.
Trump continues to believe that he has an understanding with Kim on denuclearization. I don’t believe it, and I strongly suspect that none of the officials working on North Korea in the State Department really believe it either. Yet Pompeo is right that the ball is in North Korea’s court to demonstrate whether it is serious about its commitment — which would mean entering into expert technical talks on the specifics — even if the process begins with small reciprocal steps to get started. Talks may not denuclearize the North, but they can reduce tensions and edge the North away from dangerous behavior.
North Korea’s refusal to talk to Pompeo or Biegun should be viewed as unacceptable to the international community. Trump has a particular responsibility to take the spotlight off himself and to communicate unequivocally that he will not meet with Kim again until Kim’s officials work on specifics with Biegun first. Seoul and Tokyo should communicate the same — as should Moscow and Beijing.
It is fine for Trump and Pompeo to express optimism about Kim’s promise to denuclearize. But Trump’s message to Beijing and Moscow must be this: “get the North Koreans working on specifics with Biegun and his team or a third summit is off the table … and maximum pressure will be back on.”
JoongAng Ilbo, May 10, Page 32