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US Pivots Again, Renews Pressure on North Korea

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, July 6, 2018.

The United States on Tuesday said it is considering resuming joint military exercises with South Korea next year, just days after U.S. President Donald Trump canceled nuclear talks with North Korea.

At the Singapore Summit in June, Trump made the surprise decision to suspend the joint drills after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a broad commitment to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis told a Pentagon news conference that the suspension of drills this summer was a “good-faith gesture” to North Korea, but that it is not an open-ended commitment.

“We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises," said Mattis.

Following the June summit, Trump lauded the Singapore agreement as a historical achievement and tweeted that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

Recently, however, the president cancelled a planned visit to Pyongyang this week by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after publicly acknowledging for the first time that negotiations to end the North’s nuclear program has stalled over Pyongyang’s demand for front loaded sanctions relief tied to small progress, and its opposition to Washington’s call for complete denuclearization prior to granting any concessions.

The president blamed China for the lack of denuclearization progress, accusing Beijing of easing pressure on the Kim government by not strongly enforcing United Nations sanctions that block 90 percent of North Korea’s trade.

Tactical advantage

The U.S. pivot to again pressure North Korea into taking concrete denuclearization measures has angered Pyongyang and Beijing, and could complicate Seoul’s efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula though cooperation and economic engagement.

Some Trump administration supporters see a tactical advantage in taking a more aggressive approach.

“It really rattles South Korea, China and North Korea at the same time, and increases the leverage, strategic leverage of the Trump administration,” said Bong Young-shik, a political analyst with the Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Skeptics see the current impasse between Washington and Pyongyang as the result of Trump’s impetuous decision to met with Kim before clear denuclearization goals were defined and an implementation plan developed.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the document that he and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un had signed at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island, June 12, 2018, in Singapore.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the document that he and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un had signed at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island, June 12, 2018, in Singapore.

“So this is where we are. I think this is what you get with non-strategic impatience,” said regional security analyst Daniel Pinkston with Troy University in Seoul.

Pinkston contrasted former President Barack Obama’s strategic patience strategy that emphasized closely coordinating with Beijing and Seoul on North Korea sanctions, with what seems like Trump’s unpredictable strategic shifts that often surprises allies and adversaries.

Pinkston and other analysts are also expressing concern that Trump may be taking a hard line against North Korea in part to shift media focus away from his growing domestic problems, the criminal prosecution of his former lawyer and past campaign manager, along with increasing prospects that the opposition Democratic Party will make significant gains in the November mid-term legislative elections.

Path forward

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is expected to try to mediate the dispute between the U.S, and North Korea when he and Kim hold their third inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in September. The two leaders first met in April on the South Korean side of the border area’s demilitarized zone.

As an initial step toward denuclearization, Washington wants Pyongyang to declare the full extent of its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile capabilities. Arms control experts estimate North Korea has between 20 and 60 nuclear warheads and thousands of missiles. Such a list, which would also likely reveal numerous hidden nuclear facilities, may help determine whether or not North Korea is prepared to be transparent and serious about arms reductions talks.

North Korea, however, has demanded the U.S. and South Korea first issue a peace declaration to formally end hostilities and replace the armistice that has been in effect since the end of the Korean War. Critics worry a peace declaration could undermine the justification for the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

President Moon supports a peace declaration and may try to negotiate a deal where Pyongyang agrees to release its nuclear arsenal list at the same time Washington signs the peace declaration.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor lands at Gwangju Air Base in the southwestern city of Gwangju, South Korea, May 16, 2018.
A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor lands at Gwangju Air Base in the southwestern city of Gwangju, South Korea, May 16, 2018.

“The U.S. and North Korea should reach an agreement so that North Korea’s actions regarding denuclearization and the actions of the U.S. regarding the declaration of the end to war can be exchanged according to the principle of action for action,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Trade war

China has denied Trump’s criticism about lax enforcement of North Korean sanctions, despite media reports of increased smuggling along the border region.

In contrast to improving relations between China and North Korea, Beijing has entered into a contentious trade war with Washington that may undermine cooperation efforts to enforce sanctions.

“I don’t think there is any, you know, no sense of urgency to do the heavy lifting for the United States when it comes to North Korea and economic sanctions,” said Pinkston.

At the same Kim Jong Un continues work to improve relations with his neighbors and his standing in the world community.

There have been media reports that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Pyongyang for a military parade in September to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea. There has also been speculation about an upcoming Kim meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and possibly a trip to the United Nations General Assembly meeting later in September.

“All these events favor North Korea in terms of further normalizing the North Korean dictator and painting North Korea as the peace seeking party, while painting the Trump administration as the petulant party,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean studies specialist at Tufts University.

Victor Beattie in Washington and Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.