The Korean War in the Oval Office: Why Might Have Trump Cancelled Pompeo’s Visit to North Korea?

More detail has emerged regarding the cancellation of Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to Pyongyang by President Trump, which further adds credence to some of the themes discussed in a previous post here on the Pompeo cancellation.

There are two reports that form the basis of much commentary on this, the first from Josh Rogin at The Washington Post and the second by Daniel Sneider for Toyokeizai Online, a Japanese publication. Both are partly based on sources from current and former US officials.

The Rogin report contains three points worth reflecting upon. The first is that the purpose of the Pompeo trip was to offer North Korea a like-for-like swap of declarations; the United States would jointly declare the end of the Korean War but in a non-formal or non-legally binding way, i.e. through a type of political declaration rather than a formal armistice, and North Korea would declare the extent of its nuclear and missile programme and its nuclear weapons stockpile. The second is that the trip was cancelled because a letter from Kim Yong-chol, perhaps through a back channel, to Pompeo was belligerent in tone and so led both Trump and Pompeo to take the view that the trip would fail so thereby better cancelled. Thirdly, Rogin reports on inter-agency disagreement on the intentions of North Korea.

The exchange of declarations is something that would be in accord with North Korea’s long standing conception of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula as involving a gradual process of reciprocal like-for-like actions. Although a lot of commentary has focused on the, supposed, belligerent tone of the Kim Yong-chol letter, it is possible that the issue with the letter is not the tone but the sense that North Korea would demand of Pompeo that Washington first agree to a declaration of the end of the Korean War and only thereafter would Pyongyang make the nuclear and missile declarations. That would sync with repeated North Korean refrains in recent times that despite the repatriation of the remains of dead US soldiers, the closing of the tunnels at Punggye-ri, the missile testing moratorium, and dismantlement work on the static test stand used for hot testing large liquid propelled missile/rocket engines at Sohae the United States has done little more than suspend this year’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises with South Korea. Washington has not moved to ease tensions in a significant way as agreed to at Singapore, North Korea charges. Such a position may well have been expressed in a belligerent way, as that is the North Korean MO and one well understood by seasoned diplomatic hands and long time observers of the North Korean nuclear crisis.

The US, it seems from the Rogin report, wants this to go the other way. Washington would rather that North Korea first provide a detailed declaration, Saddam Hussein to Hans Blix style, of its nuclear and missile programme and inventory. Furthermore, and this is crucial, Washington, especially John Bolton and Jim Mattis, demands that this declaration be also verified before anything else happens. The chances of North Korea agreeing to the making and verification of such a declaration without any reciprocal US concessions are just about zero. It could be that the Kim Yong-chol letter made that apparent to Pompeo and Trump, and that in the usually colourful North Korean style, however that is hardly clear as the details are rather sketchy on this point.

The business about inter-agency debate on North Korean intentions are fascinating. This is what the Rogin report states,

Meanwhile, there’s a contentious interagency debate over what exactly North Korea is currently doing with its nuclear and missile programs. There’s no single U.S. government assessment, so different U.S. agencies have different takes on how aggressively North Korea is backsliding, and even over what metrics should be used to evaluate the lack of progress

The reader might recall previous reports, based on multiple intelligence community sources, regarding a deliberate North Korean strategy to deceive the United States by under declaring its nuclear warhead stockpile and by continuing to maintain clandestine facilities post a formal declaration, such as clandestine, undeclared, uranium enrichment plants. Should the Rogin statement above be correct that means no inter-agency assessment such as a National Intelligence Estimate making this finding exists, and that furthermore there is no consensus on this within the IC. That’s important, as claims to the contrary cannot be now considered fact.

Consider. Engaging North Korea in talks, even under the expectation that they may fail, is a way to test and evaluate North Korean intentions. Say Pompeo offers Pyongyang an exchange of declarations and North Korea rejects it? Would that dangerously tilt the Earth’s orbit? Hardly, but it might tell us something about what North Korea might be hiding in addition to its possible intentions. Moreover, the US has agency here. The actions of Washington can play a role in influencing North Korean intentions. The US public debate on this just assumes that whatever North Korea‘s intentions are they are fixed and there is little the US can do to influence them.

The Schneider report is also intriguing, especially those parts dedicated to South Korea and the tussle within the Trump administration over North Korea policy. The Schneider report detects increasing alarm in Washington regarding the determination of Seoul to press ahead with inter-Korean détente come hell or high water. The report suggests that the United States might be increasingly prepared to put Moon Jae-in in his place much as George W Bush did with Kim Dae-jun, even to the extent of placing sanctions on South Korea if it acts contrary to the “maximum pressure” economic sanctions in place on the North. If this is true, that’s massive just, like, massive. The US could find itself isolated from an integrating project on the Korean peninsula involving both Korea’s, China and Russia that is the major powers of Northeast Asia excluding Japan. How long would Japan be prepared to remain a steadfast US ally upon that basis? Now how topsy-turvy would that be? That would be almost something like a reversal of the Pacific War. This seems unlikely.

The other thing about the Schneider report is the worry among US officials that Trump needs to be “contained” because he thinks that a tete-a-tete between himself and Kim Jong-un can solve all problems. So much so that the US bureaucracy must ensure that the world is “protected from Trump.” This is an amazing statement. Notice they’re not acting to save the world from Trump’s actions on global warming or his withdrawal from the JCPOA with Iran. No. Preventing Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un is to save the world from Trump, probably much like preventing Reagan from meeting one-on-one alone with Mikhail Gorbachev was meant to save the world too. Only thing is at Reykjavik when that happened we almost ended up with nuclear disarmament, but the world was saved from this ugly threat thankfully. This is said, and yet nobody blinks an eye. Quite amazing, breathtaking in fact.

Indeed, the Schneider report states that Trump thinks he can get North Korea to agree to complete, irreversible, and verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme but the Washington bureaucracy thinks this is not achievable so there’s little scope for further diplomacy. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that very objective itself, shared by everybody in the administration it seems, and the widespread view that North Korea agreed to it at Singapore, it didn’t, and is now reneging, it isn’t. This is not a serious position, and the response shouldn’t be to abandon diplomacy rather the objective should change to something less than complete, fully verified dismantlement for instance mutual and balanced conventional force reductions in Korea and an agreement on strategic stability at the nuclear level whilst remaining committed to the eventual goal of a, say, nuclear free zone in the Korean peninsula. A big issue with the US debate on these things is that it ignores serious discussion of alternatives to CVID, and the liberal arms control and the liberal media bears a non-trivial responsibility for this.

The failure of a Pompeo trip to Pyongyang would make for poor optics, given Trump’s, false, representation of the Singapore Summit and the bust up last time Pompeo went to Pyongyang. That means domestic politics would have played a role here given the liberal critique of Trump’s actions on North Korea. Also the latest leaks and discussion could be further diversions from Trump’s legal troubles, and the whole thing may die down and the process might resume from where it left off soon thereafter.

Furthermore, a key concern of the US, including the administration’s critics, is the perceived credibility of the US as a global power. So what if the US moves first? The United States is by far the greater power, it can afford to move first on an exchange of declarations to test the waters on North Korean intentions and to help move diplomacy and denuclearisation a step forward.

But if the prime concern is maintaining the perceived credibility of US power you don’t move first because nobody makes the US move first, especially not a tiny little tin pot state like North Korea.

Hegemony, unfortunately, continues to outrank survival.