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Trump’s in ‘No Rush’ on North Korea—Which May Be Just What Kim Wants

Trump’s in ‘No Rush’ on North Korea—Which May Be Just What Kim Wants

  • State Department says there are no ‘artificial timelines’
  • North Korea continues developing missile technology: analysts

U.S. President Donald Trump

Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg

President Donald Trump argues there’s no urgency to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Critics worry that relaxed approach may play into North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s hands.

On Wednesday, Trump played down worries over an announcement hours earlier that a meeting scheduled between Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart was unexpectedly canceled. He chalked up the change to a scheduling conflict, adding, “We think it’s going fine, we’re in no rush.”

Donald Trump on Nov. 9

Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg

That’s a shift from last year, when Trump warned darkly that Kim was a “rocket man is on a suicide mission.” He pulled together an international coalition for a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions to choke off North Korea’s economy and bring it to the negotiating table.

Now that Kim’s regime has promised to negotiate, and suspended tests of missiles and nuclear bombs, the U.S. pressure to reach a solution appears to been dissipating. And the longer the process drags on, the harder it will be for Washington to head off efforts by other countries -- chiefly China and Russia -- to ease sanctions on Pyongyang.

Read a QuickTake on why Trump holds the cards in North Korea debate

“As long as North Korea refrains from nuclear or missile testing, they win international support for diplomacy," said Jenny Town, a research fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center. “So when North Korea isn’t being overtly provocative, public sentiment will be more on their side than not -- especially as a small state against the United States.”

The last several months have brought several signs that the sanctions regime brought by the U.S. is weakening. The Trump administration has accused Russia of cheating on sanctions, and experts say anecdotal evidence suggests that China has eased up on bans against tourists crossing over into North Korea.

On Thursday, Russia called a meeting of the UN Security Council to take up its request for humanitarian exemptions to international sanctions on Pyongyang. The U.S. said it would vet Russia’s list.

More crucially, the U.S. has come under pressure from a key ally, South Korea. At a recent forum in Beijing, a special adviser to the South Korean president said he hoped China’s President Xi Jinping would ask for some sanctions relief in a meeting with Trump in Argentina later this month, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Thursday.

Read a QuickTake on what an end to the Korean War would mean

The assessment of the adviser, Moon Chung-in, was that North Korea’s steps so far were different from what it’s done in the past and the country deserves the trust of the international community.

"You can imagine a situation in which the United States appears to be the inflexible, unreasonable actor in this story and Asia, following China and South Korea’s lead, either losing interest in enforcement or actively finding ways to circumvent sanctions on North Korea," said Andray Abrahamian, a fellow at Stanford University.

Pompeo’s special envoy for North Korea, Steven Biegun, declined comment via a State Department spokesman. The State Department also didn’t respond to requests for comment. At a briefing on Wednesday, though, the department’s deputy spokesman, Robert Palladino, said the U.S. was “in a pretty good place right now” and refused “to be driven into artificial timelines.”

At the heart of the current dispute between North Korea and the U.S. is a problem that has bedeviled talks for months: the U.S. wants North Korea to give up all its nuclear weapons before getting sanctions relief. North Korea, on the other hand, argues that restrictions should be eased with each step toward disarmament.

‘Vicious’ Sanctions

North Korea has sought to ramp up its own pressure to undermine the U.S. stance. During a visit to a northeastern coastal city late last month, Kim lashed out at what he called the “vicious” sanctions regime against the North.

“They will be made to clearly see over time how our country that has built its own strength hundreds of times defying hardship,” Kim said.

The administration has vacillated on how to approach those talks. After Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June and agreed to work toward denuclearization and a formal end to the Korean War, Pompeo said he expected disarmament to be mostly complete by the end of Trump’s first term in January 2021.

He’s since shed that talk. According to analysts, the new lack of urgency to reach a deal may reflect a broader understanding by Trump that the actual spade work of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons will be far too difficult -- and may be impossible. Instead, according to those people, Trump is happy to settle for the current state of affairs: where North Korea refrains from ballistic missile or nuclear tests.

Second Summit

Gary Samore

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“I think Trump believes he has already achieved a tremendous accomplishment by halting nuclear testing,” said Gary Samore, who negotiated with North Korea during the Clinton administration and served as President Barack Obama’s arms-control coordinator. “At least one view is that Trump views he’s already achieved enough that he can claim North Korea as a foreign policy success.”

The question now is what Trump might get out of a second summit with Kim. In his press conference, Trump said he expects to meet with Kim again early next year. But the question is what they might achieve -- and officials including Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are said to be pressing hard for something concrete to result from the meeting.

In the meantime, while the North has held off testing nuclear weapons and missiles, it continues to make progress on its weapons program, according to experts. Intelligence indicates that it continues to produce fissile material for bombs and researching new missile designs, according to Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

“North Korea has been playing for time since the beginning of the year,” Mount said. “It makes good sense that the administration provide time and space for talks but abandoning all timelines isn’t an effective negotiating strategy.”

— With assistance by David Wainer