Trump team doesn’t know what it wants from North Korea
The president and his top officials have been at odds with each other — and sometimes even themselves — when it comes to defining the U.S. negotiating position with Kim Jong Un.
This story is being published by the South China Morning Post as part of a content partnership with POLITICO. It was reported by Nahal Toosi and originally appeared on politico.com on May 31, 2018.
It was a quick but telling exchange.
At a House committee hearing earlier this month, Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas was grilling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the Trump administration's plans for North Korea. "How do you define the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula?" Castro asked.
"Well, we've said 'complete,'" Pompeo responded. Pressed further, Pompeo cited several components of North Korea’s nuclear program — including missile capability and fissile material production — that he said would have to go.
"Will you leave them with a civilian nuclear program?" Castro asked.
After a long pause, Pompeo replied that “we have said that it won't be appropriate for them to have the capacity to enrich." But he quickly modified his answer.
"I can't answer that question,” Pompeo admitted. “I'm not in a position that I can answer that question for you today."
The back-and-forth, which took place May 23, illustrated a major challenge for the United States as President Donald Trump prepares for a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: Trump and his top advisers don't seem to know what they want to get out of it.
Is the goal of the summit an arms control deal with Pyongyang that includes only nuclear weapons, or will it also cover chemical and biological threats? It is a grand bargain that covers every facet of the U.S.-North Korea relationship? Will it involve a rapid North Korean disarmament or a years-long drawdown? Will the talks address all ballistic missiles, including ones that can strike Japan and South Korea but not the U.S.?
The answers are far from clear. A POLITICO review of public statements from the administration in recent weeks found that Trump and his senior aides have articulated different goals at different times — even on a basic question like the meaning of denuclearization. Officials such as Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence and Trump himself have contradicted one another, sometimes raising and lowering expectations within a span of hours.
Trump canceled the planned June 12 summit last week, but has since said it "could still happen," and preparations are underway in both nations.
Some confusion over the administration's position is inevitable, given the complexity of the issues, the short amount of time for planning since Trump agreed in March to meet with Kim, and the newness of Bolton and Pompeo to their jobs (both started only a few weeks ago).
But the incoherence has flustered members of Congress as well as America's Asian allies, who worry that without clearly defined objectives the talks will fall apart and embolden an already dangerous North Korea. The mélange of messages also has angered Pyongyang, which just last week fumed at “unbridled remarks … recklessly made” by Trump officials like Bolton and Pence.
"At the end of the day you’ve got to be able to have a bottom line position," Castro said in an interview with POLITICO on Wednesday. "My fear is that they don’t know exactly where their lines are and exactly what their position is."
Trump is said to view unpredictability as smart strategy -- a way to keep adversaries off-balance. But critics say the Republican president is sowing destructive confusion.
"The world needs to count on the American president and his word and the fact that you should be able to take that word to the bank," said Christopher Hill, a former senior State Department official who engaged in nuclear talks with North Korea. "Clearly, we don’t have that. We don’t have anything close to that."
In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert insisted that everyone in the administration is “committed to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” – a vague phrase frequently used by the Trump team. “As we work on the roadmap, the destination remains the same,” Nauert said.
One key question is how much time Trump is willing to give North Korea to meet his definition of "denuclearization." Bolton and Pompeo have both indicated they do not want a long, drawn out process that lasts years and includes a step-by-step reduction of North Korean arms in return for U.S. concessions. They point to past U.S. nuclear deals with North Korea that collapsed over time, saying America was too trusting and North Korea broke its promises.
Pompeo told lawmakers last week that Trump is impatient for results. "We're not going to let this drag out," he said. "We're not going to provide economic relief until such time as we have an irreversible set of actions, not words ... undertaken by the North Korean regime."
But just the day before, Trump himself appeared to leave the door open for an incremental approach. "It would certainly be better if it were all in one," the president said when asked about a phased approach coupled with U.S. incentives. "Does it have to be? I don’t think I want to totally commit myself.”
The question of whether Pyongyang can keep a civilian nuclear program, which Pompeo dodged, also is crucial. Earlier this month, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Barack Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, saying it was too narrow. Days later, Pompeo gave a speech suggesting that any future agreement with Iran must include more severe restrictions on Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear energy, which can be harnessed for military purposes. It would be difficult for the Trump team to explain why North Korea should not be held to the same standard.
Then there is the question of the so-called “Libya model.” In late April, Bolton cited the example of the 2003-2004 deal the U.S. reached with then-Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who gave up his nuclear program in return for greater economic ties to the West.
North Korea views the "Libya model" in a different light, remembering that the U.S. ultimately backed Libyan rebels who ousted and killed Gaddafi in 2011. In a May 16 statement, Pyongyang slammed Bolton and warned Trump not to heed his advice, saying “we do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him.”
But Trump actually appeared to agree with North Korea's definition of the "Libya model." In a May 17 appearance before reporters, Trump declared that "the Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all, when we're thinking of North Korea…. [Libya] was decimated. There was no deal to keep Gaddafi."
Moments later, however, Trump suggested that the Libya model could be operative after all, saying "that model would take place if we don't make a deal, most likely."
Four days later, Pence expounded on Trump's threat, telling Fox News that "this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn't make a deal." That drew another furious reaction from North Korea, where an official called the vice president a "political dummy" and suggested the U.S. and Pyongyang could be headed for a nuclear showdown. The exchange helped prompt Trump’s decision to call off the summit, which now appears back on track.
Compounding the problem, Trump officials have at times used rhetoric that may not reflect their actual positions. Some have referred in recent weeks to the goal of the "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." Pyongyang has often said it desires the same thing. But North Korea's definition of the phrase includes bidding farewell to U.S. military forces in the region – the same ones that place South Korea and Japan under America's nuclear umbrella.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke of "denuclearization of the peninsula" on Wednesday when describing the topic of the June 12 summit. But when asked if she was talking only about North Korea and not U.S. weapons systems, Sanders said "correct."
Then there is the question of the scope of the talks. Kim may want any discussion of disarmament to focus solely on his nuclear weapons. But in little-noted public statements, Trump has indicated he wants Pyongyang to surrender other weapons of mass destruction.
Earlier this week, for instance, the White House issued a read-out of a call between Trump and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in which the two were said to have "affirmed the shared imperative of achieving the complete and permanent dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and ballistic missile programs."
Yet White House readouts don’t mention chemical and biological weapons coming up in Trump’s talks with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts.
When Trump spoke with China's President Xi Jinping on May 8, for instance, a White House readout said the leaders "agreed on the importance of continued implementation of sanctions on North Korea until it permanently dismantles its nuclear and missile programs." Trump's conversations with South Korean President Moon Jae-in are painted in even softer tones, with White House statements sometimes not even mentioning "denuclearization."
Yet in his late April comments to Fox News, Bolton suggested that chemical and biological weapons also would be part of any nuclear talks with North Korea.
During his confirmation hearing in mid-April, Pompeo raised eyebrows when he said the "purpose of the meeting is to address this nuclear threat to the United States." That worried Japan and South Korea, who fear the U.S. will be happy with a deal addressing only North Korea’s long-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting the U.S., but not its missiles that can strike their territory.
Over a month later, during his May 23 appearance before House members, Pompeo – having met with Kim Jong Un in the interim – again stressed the impact on the United States. "If we can get America's interest safe and secure, we're prepared to do a great deal to ensure that we get that," he said.
But during that same appearance, Pompeo also hinted that the talks could cover far more ground than nuclear bombs or the missiles that carry them — potentially even including human rights. "It will be part of the discussions as we move forward," Pompeo said when lawmakers asked about the North Korean regime's horrific treatment of its people.
As the administration mangles its message, some observers are seeking silver linings.
Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst who specialized in North Korea, said the Trump administration’s unpredictability could prove a "handy tool" if the U.S. president comes face-to-face with Kim.
"In a way, he's giving back to the North Koreans one of their keystone negotiating tactics: saying one thing one day only to totally nullify it the next day," she said. "This could throw off Pyongyang which has been conditioned to dealing with a more consistent, predictable counterpart."