The size of Trump’s Senate win did not impress Kim Jong-un. In fact, it appears that while Americans were still voting on Tuesday, Pyongyang’s senior negotiator Kim Yong-chol ghosted on the flight he was supposed to take to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York. At midnight, the State Department issued a statement saying that the meeting was off, but conversations were ongoing. That didn’t stop President Trump from insisting at his postelection press conference on Wednesday that he would meet with his counterpart again in the new year. “We’re very happy with how it’s going with North Korea,” Trump added. “We think it’s going fine.”
Observers had already been predicting that U.S.–North Korea talks were close to going off track, and Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol would have nothing to offer each other at the New York meeting. The core problem hasn’t changed since the Trump–Kim Singapore summit in June. Washington wants North Korea to take verifiable steps toward disarmament, with a peace treaty and progress on sanctions removal as rewards. The North wants a peace agreement, sanctions removal, then disarmament — and it wants disarmament to be mutual.
Given the size of that gap, why is Trump happy? In his own words, “The sanctions are on. The missiles have stopped, the rockets have stopped. The hostages are home.” Except, while the North has stopped testing missiles, it is still developing them. And as for the sanctions, China and Russia are openly skirting them. South Korea is moving toward its fourth summit meeting with the North this year, and exploring possible cooperation in areas like infrastructure, which would be forbidden under the existing sanctions regime.
It seems that Washington has two choices. It can come up with innovations and compromises that would move the stalled negotiations forward, possibly gaining more access to the North’s weapons program, even if comprehensive disarmament remains out of reach. Or it can let the process fail and return to the threats of “fire and fury” that dominated 2017.
But Trump seems to think he’s found a third way: that his personal relationship with Kim Jong-un is enough to keep things chill and North Korea’s nuclear advances won’t come so fast, or be so noticeable, as to cause political turbulence at home. Now that the midterms are over, we’re all going to find out if he’s right. Republicans losing the House puts an effective end to Trump’s legislative agenda, and presidents stymied in Congress often turn to foreign affairs as an alternative outlet.
For the moment, several nations appear to be ahead of North Korea on the White House “fire and fury” list. The administration’s sanctions are biting Tehran, and hard-liners there will want to respond; as it becomes clearer that Europe can’t implement a work-around to let Iran keep the economic benefits from the 2015 nuclear deal, security tensions will likely escalate.
Meanwhile, last week National Security Adviser John Bolton gave a fiery speech lumping Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela together as an alleged “troika of tyranny” threatening U.S. security. Because both Nicaragua and Venezuela are avowedly socialist, and receive economic aid from Cuba, the Trump administration has cast them as a first-tier ideological threat — but they’re mainly harming their own citizens. Ninety percent of Venezuelans are now living below the poverty level, and the combination of hunger and political unrest has driven 2.3 million out of the country. Only Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan have larger refugee crises. Six months of protests and repression in Nicaragua have left hundreds dead and detained, thousands injured, and the economy in ruins. Bolton’s speech was read as an effort to spur conservative Cuban-Americans to vote in the midterms, rather than a new policy advance. However, for the past few months the administration has been ratcheting up its rhetoric on Venezuela, and it’s allegedly conducting secret talks with opposition groups about military intervention.
Secretary of Defense Mattis is now at pains to give the impression that he wants the U.S. military to focus on its great power rivals Russia and China — and the Pentagon was quick, the day after the election, to announce that it had dropped the name “Faithful Patriot” for Trump’s much-criticized plan to send more troops to the southern border than we currently have in Syria. Several weeks ago, the Washington rumor mill suggested Mattis would be the first out the door after the midterms. But then the counter-rumors began, saying it was all a plot by Bolton and his deputy Mira Ricardel to oust the Defense secretary. Mattis has stopped appearing at the top of rumored Trump hit lists, but that could easily change.
With so much on its plate, its no surprise that the Trump administration seems content to let North Korea bump along for the time being. Historically, though, Pyongyang doesn’t like to let others dictate the pace of events, and it tends to force the issue when it sees an advantage to doing so. The canceled New York meeting is likely to be one in a series of blips that lead to increasingly unpleasant choices.