Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading back to Pynongyang. This time his mission is to "fill in some details" on how Kim is going to de-nuclearize his nation, after posing for the crème de la crème of public relations coups. It could be mission impossible.
Saying that is a big deal to me. I am an optimist on what's going on with North and South Korea. I think Trump's strategy was actually sound--it could not have been any worse than previous administrations which totally failed to move the North Koreans into any meaningful slowdown in pusuit of their nuclear and missile ambitions.
But now that Kim Jong-un has had a taste of President Trump's aura, he would be foolish to do anything quickly. Some analysts believe Kim has actually expanded his test sites. In any event, there's no independent evidence that Kim is lifting a fat little finger to de-nuclearize, or de-anything at all.
Shortly after the summit, Trump said that Kim promised to destroy a rocket test site, but observers at 38 North, which tracks North Korea’s weapons program for the Stimson Center, have found no evidence this happened. Indeed, their 38 North’s analysts say that construction of nuclear reactors is continuing, noting that “the North’s nuclear cadre can be expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang.”
This makes perfect sense if you look at it through the prism of North Korean history dealing with the West. They take what's given and pretend they got nothing at all, then ask for more. In the past, it's been money--lifting of economic sanctions, that when given, are greedily taken in return for nothing. Now it's direct negotiations with the U.S., recognition that Kim gets to play at the big boys' table, and outsized status in dealings with North Korea's patron state, China.
Pompeo can expect a heaping plate of "what have you done for me lately" from the North Koreans. They'll conveniently forget every promise that Kim made in his historic meeting with Trump.
So what should we do?
I don't pretend to be a great expert here, but I do believe that keeping the sanctions in place is the most powerful lever we have. Second to that is letting South Korea handle the technical and diplomatic efforts to move toward a legal ending to the Korean War. I think the only solution for the two Koreas is reunification, a path that older South Koreans find appealing, but younger generations reject. If something is going to happen, it needs to happen soon, as in the next decade or so.
There may not be time to use up a whole ten years. Kim could string Trump and the U.S. along, while continuing to improve his missile and warhead technology, until he reaches a point where the best America can do is offer a deterrent, like we do with all other nuclear powers. At that point, reunification may be off the table forever, except as a result of the North conquering the South. With its non-existent economy, the North cannot win a war with the South, even with curtailed U.S. military support to South Korea. So it would be back to more years and decades of extortion, crime, and drug production.
If Pompeo fails to move Kim and his regime, he will be Trump's scapegoat in the matter, and it will haunt him for the rest of his time at State. Unfortunately for him, that's probably how this will turn out, unless we see some real progress very soon. I'd look for more cooperation between the two Koreas, with Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in engaging in more meetings, and public appearances. If North and South Korea make progress in negotiations for a permanent treaty, there may be hope.
If Trump, and Pompeo's team are waiting for de-nuclearization, they better not hold their breath. It's most likely mission impossible.