The Trump administration just walked back its approach to North Korea — less than a week before the president is set to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.
During a background call with reporters about the upcoming meeting, a senior administration official with knowledge of the negotiation’s status made two statements that contradict Washington’s previous stances on its effort to rid Pyongyang of its nuclear arsenal.
First, the official said, “I don’t know if North Korea has made the choice to denuclearize.” That’s a major statement, as the administration has consistently claimed that Kim agreed to dismantle his nuclear program when he met with President Donald Trump last year in Singapore.
Last December, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated one of the administration’s common refrains, which is that Washington is “working towards the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea as agreed to by Chairman Kim Jong Un.” Pompeo reiterated the sentiment in an interview with Fox Business Network on Thursday: “I hope we can make real progress, that Chairman Kim will begin to fulfill the commitment he made in June in Singapore of last year to denuclearize his own country.”
And in January, Trump’s top envoy for North Korea talks, Stephen Biegun, told an audience at Stanford University that Kim had committed to “the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities” which “represents the totality of North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment programs.”
So, for a top US official to basically walk that back implies that either the administration was lying before, or it’s unclear where North Korea talks really stand.
But that’s not all. The American official also noted that “we actually need to move very quickly in this process” — referring to North Korea’s denuclearization — “and I think we need to move in very big bites.”
That also goes against what Biegun said at Stanford last month:
From our side, we are prepared to discuss many actions that could help build trust between our two countries and advance further progress in parallel on the Singapore summit objectives of transforming relations, establishing a permanent peace regime on the peninsula, and complete denuclearization.
The implication, then, is that the US and North Korea would take smaller, corresponding measures to meet all of the points of disagreement. But that’s not what the official said — in fact, it’s the reverse. And that’s a problem, as past Trump administration attempts to extract major concessions from North Korea quickly have failed spectacularly.
“The ‘big bold move’ approach allows success to be defined as a photo op and a vague promise of something happening sometime between now and the sun going supernova,” Jonathan Cristol, a North Korea expert at Bard College, told me.
Perhaps the message was domestic posturing. As the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, National Security Adviser John Bolton and others in the administration oppose the step-by-step approach toward North Korea and believe the talks will ultimately fail. The senior administration official, then, may have simply been trying to reinforce that the plan is to have Pyongyang end its nuclear program soon and not over an extended period of time.
But taken together, those comments imply that the administration doesn’t know how it will deal with the upcoming, incredibly critical negotiations.
“We are nowhere,” says MIT nuclear expert Vipin Narang. “Which is probably exactly where the North Koreans want us to be.”