In the Third-Quarter Forecast, Stratfor emphasized that the summit between U.S. and North Korean leaders would set the stage for much thornier and lengthier technical discussions on denuclearization. We also noted that drama amid such talks would be par for the course.
After the first high-level visit to North Korea since the summit in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the two sides are sending mixed signals. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang over the weekend for initial discussions on implementing the broad-strokes agreement on denuclearization and other issues that Trump and Kim signed. Pompeo's post-meeting evaluation emphasized the progress that was made. But North Korea's official media called the U.S. demands over its nuclear and missile programs "regrettable" and "gangster-like." Most important, perhaps, was that unlike previous visits Pompeo was not granted a meeting with Kim.
Why It Matters
The Singapore summit resulted in a clear public mandate from the top echelon of U.S. and North Korean leadership for denuclearization, but it left the details of accomplishing that goal or the scope of such a process sketchy. Instead, the joint declaration empowered Pompeo and an unnamed North Korean counterpart to proceed with follow-up talks. The outcome of these negotiations will determine whether the warming of relations unfolds further or breaks down.
Rhetoric from the North Korean side was predictably harsh in keeping with its negotiating style. What's more important is that Pyongyang highlighted clear requests for Washington to shift tack. North Korea has long pushed for a step-by-step, reciprocal process with confidence-building measures along the way. So far, North Korea has given what it sees as concessions: The dismantling of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, the halt of missile testing and the release of U.S. detainees. It complained that the suspension of U.S. military drills with South Korea offered as a concession could be easily reversed — unlike its test site dismantling. Concretely, Pyongyang said it wants the United States to discuss "multilateral exchanges" and a Korean War peace deal — both of which would serve to normalize North Korea on the world stage. With its reaction to the Pompeo visit, North Korea is making it clear that it sees balanced concessions as only fair and is trying to set the tone for further talks.
Crucially, North Korea emphasized its standing proposals to repatriate the remains of U.S. service personnel who died during the Korean War and to dismantle a missile engine test site. Pompeo's statement emphasized these two next steps, touting the scheduling of a working-level meeting on the remains for July 12. He said there had been some discussion on the denuclearization timeline and North Korea's declaration of the full scope of its program. And, in response to the negative North Korean statement, he downplayed the U.S. stance as simply in keeping with the U.N. Security Council consensus.
What to Watch for Next
Keep in mind that what's being reported in either international news media — or what the state-run North Korean media publishes — does not necessarily reflect a complete picture of what is happening in the top-level negotiations and that channels of communication between the two sides exist at other levels that are less visible to outside observers. Both sides can use media channels to apply pressure. In the immediate future, watch for whether the July 12 meeting proceeds amicably. Look, too, for any discussion of the peace deal on the Korean War. The Pompeo visit was conducted very early in what will be a long and drawn-out negotiation between North Korea and the United States. The next significant development will be the disclosure by North Korea of its nuclear weapons testing sites and program. And that step could be months in the making.