On Saturday North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called just-completed talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “regrettable.” They were, the ministry said, “very concerning” because they could lead to a “dangerous phase that might rattle our willingness for denuclearization that had been firm.”
The ministry also complained about America’s “gangster-like mindset.”
The statement embarrassed Pompeo, who just hours before issued a sunny assessment of the two-day discussions. There had been, he said, “progress on almost all of the central issues.”
Perhaps the Foreign Ministry statement was just another example of Pyongyang’s negotiating tactics, but it nonetheless signaled the collapse of President Donald Trump’s North Korea policy.
That policy was based on the assumption that Chairman Kim Jong Un had made a strategic decision to give up his arsenal of nuclear weapons. Acting on that assumption, Trump immediately started a new round of diplomacy by keeping Pompeo in the region after the historic June 12 summit in Singapore.
It was right for the president to give Kim the “one-time shot” to make the historic decision to give up nukes. It was right for Trump to accelerate diplomacy after the summit. It was right for him to put Kim to the test by sending Pompeo to Pyongyang.
And now it is right for Trump to say Kim has wasted that opportunity and act accordingly.
The North Koreans say the talks were “regrettable”? It’s time to give them something to really regret. There have to be consequences.
There were consequences in late May. Then, North Korean propaganda writers issued belligerent words in general and torched Mike Pence in particular, calling the vice president a “political dummy.”
Trump’s response was quick. On May 24, he withdrew from the then-upcoming summit with Kim.
The reaction from Pyongyang was even quicker. North Korean official rhetoric went from belligerent to conciliatory in hours.
This time, Trump needs to pull the plug on negotiations.
Why should there be such a short fuse? Trump, by making concessions in May and June, created a situation where delay greatly benefits the North Koreans.
Trump placed trust in Kim’s good faith, even generously giving the North Korean incentives to stall negotiations. The president backed off sanctions, for instance, providing de facto relief. Moreover, he has been allowing China to violate U.S. and UN measures with impunity, and he has not acted against a slightly less-brazen Russia either.
More important, since at least the end of May the administration has held off sanctioning almost three dozen entities, some of them Russian and Chinese. Because North Korea continually changes front companies, not going after Pyongyang’s new shells essentially spells the end of sanctions.
Trump gave Kim another gift: suspension of large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea. The president, incredibly, did that without getting the North Koreans to suspend their drills. Therefore, the Korean People’s Army will proceed with its summer training cycle while U.S. and South Korea forego August’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, intended to keep UN Command forces at a high state of readiness.
All this means Trump cannot waste time.
Trump has famously boasted of his new relationship with Kim. By now, the president has learned—or should have learned—that Kim rulers do not reciprocate friendly gestures. They perceive them as signs of weakness and then press the advantage. While Trump was toasting and complimenting the current Kim, his regime was increasing production of fissile material and continuing construction of missile facilities.
The only way to disarm North Korea is to give whoever is in charge—Kim or perhaps someone else—no choice but to give up weapons. That means, as a practical matter, imposing extremely high costs for stunts like the one he—or they—just pulled. The Wall Street Journal in late May reported that UN and U.S. sanctions cut the flow of international payments to Kim in half. That number could be reduced by, say, another 40 percent, with vigorous enforcement, including a blockade.
And it would be best for Washington to go after Pyongyang’s big-power sponsors, Beijing and Moscow. The Chinese, in particular, have exerted a malign influence in recent months. As Trump himself suggested on various occasions—for instance at his May 22 press conference while hosting South Korean President Moon Jae-in—China was responsible for Kim’s unwelcome “little change in attitude.”
Trump, in response to Beijing troublemaking, can enforce U.S. law against money-laundering Chinese banks. All of the so-called Big Four have been implicated in this sordid activity, and at a minimum billion-dollar fines are in order. Furthermore, the Treasury Department should think about designating Bank of China, the smallest of the group, a “primary money laundering concern” pursuant to Section 311 of the Patriot Act, essentially a death sentence for an international institution. Designation leads to being disconnected from dollar accounts.
Trump, who has repeatedly said he was not going to make the mistakes of his predecessors, just did, in this case by trying to ingratiate himself with a horrific regime. The North Koreans, by going out of their way to embarrass Pompeo, made Trump pay a price, exposing the fallacy at the heart of his policy.
So now it is time for Trump to return the favor. Last month, referring to Supreme Commander Kim, the American leader said “he won’t have that opportunity again.”
Kim had his chance and blew it. Trump cannot take back the legitimization he conferred on Kim in Singapore, but he can take away just about everything else.