Negotiations may be better than war, however if talks are just for talks sake and do not lead to a safer environment for the United States and its allies, then the diplomacy is not worth pursuing. President Donald Trump’s version of foreign policy has weakened his negotiating position with North Korea by the way he treats his allies and competitors in the region. If he wishes to achieve what his predecessors failed to do (i.e. verify the North’s nuclear weapon program), then his tactics need to change.
It has been nearly a month since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Trump signed a vague document which left Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to clear up the details. Pompeo attempted to do just that when he travelled to Pyongyang last week. Unfortunately, his efforts came to little avail as North Korea and the United States gave different accounts of the meeting; the North’s foreign ministry claimed the talks were “regrettable” and Pompeo claimed the talks were “productive.” The only substance produced from the meeting was the scheduling of a follow-up meeting around July 12 in Panmunjom to discuss the return of the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War and early reports indicate that the North Korean delegation skipped that meeting.
After Pyongyang, Pompeo travelled to Tokyo to brief South Korea and Japan officials. Pompeo told Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, that he raised the abductions issue at this meeting and every other meeting he has had with the North Koreans. For the time being, this should satisfy Japan, but in the long term, if the abductees issue is not resolved, then look for Tokyo to grow restless. As Tokyo becomes agitated Japan may reconsider its developmental aid for potential North Korean reconstruction.
While Pompeo may have satisfied Japan on the abductions issue, Japanese citizens are losing faith in denuclearization. The Yomiuri Simbun and the Hankook Ilbo conducted a joint survey where 83 percent of Japanese citizens do not think the complete denuclearization of North Korea will be possible in the near future.
Like Japan, South Korea is currently finding out what an “American First” foreign policy looks like. In recent weeks the Blue House has seen the cancellation of the largest annual military exercise conducted by South Korea and the United States, Operation Ulchi Freedom Guardian. It has seen an American president say, “We have 32,000 soldiers in South Korea. I would like to bring them back home.” And finally, there was that meeting between Secretary Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol, which produced very little in terms of denuclearization. All of these actions blindsided our allies because Trump failed to inform South Korea or Japan before this unilateral behavior.
After all of this President Moon Jae-in still praised Trump for the summit and the suspension of military exercises. This is because the current Blue House administration downplays the military. This may satisfy the short term but in the long term the liberal government cannot hold power forever. South Korean conservatives were critical of the Singapore Summit calling it a “peace show in disguise.” Trump’s actions hurt South Korean readiness and also hurt relations with the opposition party in South Korea.
All of this unfolds as Trump berates European allies at the NATO summit. Going into the NATO summit Trump heavily criticized NATO members for not paying their fair share and on the first day the summit Trump stated the Germany is “captive to Russia.” The NATO summit follows the G-7 Summit where Trump and Trudeau clashed.
American allies aren’t the only countries reeling from a Trump foreign policy. As Washington attempts to maintain additional pressure on Pyongyang to come to a deal, look for there to be little cooperation from Beijing because China is currently involved in a trade war with the United States. It is unknown whether China is “exerting negative pressure” onto North Korea, as President Trump tweeted, but in the wake of the Singapore summit Beijing has loosened their enforcement of sanctions on the North Korean border. Anticipate Beijing to interpret economic sanctions more loosely as Xi looks to put a thorn in Trump’s side.
President Trump has severely limited his choices in the area: he faces little cooperation from trade-war China, a South Korean military that has been repeatedly disappointed, and a Japan government that has not seen a resolution of the abductees issue. As the glitter of the Singapore summit is washed off, Washington’s relationship with its allies are frayed and the United States’ main competitor is now isolated.
If the main goal is the denuclearization of the North, then the current tactics are failing. The United States cannot half-heartedly enter negotiations, it requires full attention and all options must be open.
In order to re-open those options President Trump needs to do the following: 1) manage the relationship with China to ensure cooperation, 2) resume small-scale operations with South Korea to ensure readiness and maintain maximum pressure, 3) continue to press the issue of abductions for Japan, and 4) consult U.S. allies in the region before making any unilateral decisions.
In return countries need to provide some patience. Talks will not produce denuclearization in a month. It took two years for the Six Party Talks to produce the 2005 joint-statement, which stated that “The DPRK committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” The US-North Korea relationship has come a long way: This time last year Kim Jong-un successfully launched his first ICBM and Trump returned by threatening “fire and fury.” Back then prospect of peace seemed bleak, but even though pressure has deflated there is still work to be done.
At the end of the day, the main obstacle facing North Korea-U.S. negotiations is verification; “Trust but verify” is a phrase that President Ronald Reagan would say. The Six Party Talks broke down after the 2007 joint statement contained no provision for verification in the second phase of denuclearization. With the absence of a follow-up declaration Pyongyang expelled IAEA inspectors in early 2009 and conducted a nuclear weapons test a month later. Trump is in rare position to accomplish what his predecessors failed to do: successfully verify the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
Whether the president can perform any of these actions is yet to be seen. These talks are only the beginning of a diplomatic mountain that Trump has to climb and his current tactics are creating unnecessary obstacles. Though it may seem out of reach now, the summit of this mountain is reachable, but only if the tactics are changed.
James Amedeo is a researcher at the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society.