Welcome to North Korean Negotiations 101. North Korea’s reaction to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Pyongyang was expected and does not signal the end of the diplomatic process; it just shows us it will be a long and difficult one. On top of dealing with North Korean-style negotiations, President Donald Trump already made important concessions too soon before concrete North Korean denuclearization steps while Kim is playing a long game, looking 40 to 50 years down the road. Trump, on the other hand, seems to be focused on the next 2.5 years, until the next US presidential election in 2020.
A successful diplomatic process will depend on three things: First, whether North Korea agrees to declare all of its nuclear inventory and submit to intrusive verification measures; second, whether all sides can agree on a sequence for denuclearization, security guarantees, and peace; and third, whether President Trump has the political commitment and patience to see this through. If diplomacy fails, and the Trump administration only manages to place a Band-Aid over the problem, the result could be an economically vibrant, nuclear-armed North Korea that enjoys normal relations with Washington.
Round one, Kim. The winner of the first round of negotiations in Singapore was undisputedly Kim Jong Un—and by extension, Chinese President Xi Jinping—because Trump revealed Washington’s ultimate bargaining card too soon: US troop withdrawal from Korea. Another major summit success for North Korea was that Trump accepted Pyongyang’s decades-old demand that the United States and South Korea cancel their joint military drills. To be sure, the joint drills have been cancelled before, but that was in 1992, before Pyongyang had nuclear weapons and inter-continental ballistic missiles. The longer the soldiers do not train and exercise, the more their readiness declines, and the weaker the rationale becomes for justifying their presence on the peninsula from Pyongyang and Beijing’s point of view.
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