At the end of last week, the U.S.-North Korea dialogue hit another snag when U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly canceled a just-announced trip to Pyongyang by his secretary of state. Trump cited lack of progress toward denuclearization and accused China of not assisting with the process. North Korea hit back over the weekend with an editorial running in the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper that criticized Washington's "brigandish" push for denuclearization first and its use of "gunboat diplomacy." A spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae In said he would seek to mediate between the two sides in his upcoming visit to Pyongyang.
Why It Matters
North Korea is striking back rhetorically at the United States by voicing its opposition to pressure for unilateral denuclearization. This tone is different from the conciliatory outreach North Korea offered in May to salvage relations after Trump abruptly called off the Singapore summit between himself and Kim Jong Un. However, this state media response is not an official statement from the North Korean government, and the rhetoric is a far cry from past harsh statements issued by its foreign ministry.
The aborted trip by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was meant to break the stagnation that has typified U.S.-North Korea talks since the June 12 Trump-Kim summit. Some reports indicate that Washington was preparing to offer Pyongyang a "declaration for declaration" deal, in which the United States would issue an informal declaration on the end of the Korean War in exchange for a North Korean declaration on the scope of its nuclear program. While this would fall short of Pyongyang's hoped-for Korean War peace treaty, it would mark a step in that direction.
What to Watch for Next
Time is short for the United States to reschedule a high-level meeting with North Korea in the coming weeks. North Korea is ramping up preparations for the Day of the Foundation of the Republic holiday on Sept. 9 and a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The fifth inter-Korean summit, which will bring the South Korean president to Pyongyang, will follow shortly after.
In spite of overall skepticism about North Korea's intentions to denuclearize, the consensus in Washington appears to be that the current situation is better than a swing back to the warpath of 2017. The White House has continually downplayed the idea of clear deadlines for progress, and in some ways, the Pompeo cancellation helps avoid another high-profile snub that would fuel further skepticism. The United States is now seeking first and foremost a North Korean declaration of the complete scope of its weapons program. At the same time, Washington is trying to push the bilateral dialogue below the top-level political framework and into the practical level. For this, it will be important to monitor the activity of Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea.
For its part, North Korea very much wants to keep the diplomacy going. Even as it stubbornly pushes back, Pyongyang has continued to do just enough to keep things open and on track. North Korea did move forward on two summit pledges by returning POW/MIA remains and beginning to tear down its missile testing ground in Tongchang-ri. On Aug. 26, it also released a detained Japanese national in a concession to a key U.S. ally. And, most important, North Korea has maintained its suspension of weapons tests. It has been playing a survival strategy for decades with the United States and now has a brief opportunity to break out of its shell. But it will not do so at the cost of its own security and political stability.
Furthermore, South Korea and the United States risk falling out of step with each other. Seoul is rushing to improve the potential for future stability in its bilateral relations with North Korea, and nuclear weapons are not its primary concern. The South, which continues to rely on the United States, will stop short of alienating its security partner.
China's main priority remains to avoid allowing the outreach to break down while preventing any U.S. breakthrough with North Korea that would jeopardize Chinese interests. In this, the current halt in progress is amenable to Beijing's interests. Beijing will continue to work to keep the U.S.-North Korea dialogue from falling apart and keep it in its current state between breakthrough and breakdown.