Why Washington pulled the plug on talks with Pyongyang

With the abrupt cancelation of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s upcoming trip to Pyongyang, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy seems to be taking a sharp turn, a turn that some North Korea watchers see as a “truly bad sign.”

Secretary Pompeo announced on Aug. 23 that he, and his newly appointed State Department Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, would travel to Pyongyang for the fourth round of talks with North Korea.

“It’s a very timely moment for Steve to join the team and come on board,” declared Pompeo, “he and I will be traveling to North Korea next week to make further diplomatic progress towards our objective.”

Just a day after Pompeo’s announcement, however, President Trump tweeted, “I have asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to go to North Korea, at this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula …”

Many analysts consider the Aug. 24 cancelation of scheduled Pyongyang visit as the “first real stumbling block for U.S.-North Korea talks” since the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit in June. “So when Trump abruptly canceled the trip after a closed-door briefing on talks from Pompeo,” writes Jennifer Rubin of Washington Post, “the jig was up. North Korea hasn’t been negotiating in good faith at all. In fact, we have gotten zilch for our concession on military exercises and for elevating and flattering Kim.”

And for South Korea, America’s key ally in Northeast Asia, warns Choe Sang-Hun, the Korea correspondent for New York Times, “The past few days have been a roller-coaster ride for President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. On Aug. 23, the U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, announced that he would travel to Pyongyang, raising hopes that the trip would make progress in talks over denuclearizing the North and provide the rationale for Mr. Moon to advance inter-Korean relations. Those hopes were quickly dashed barely a day later, however, when President Trump abruptly canceled Mr. Pompeo’s trip. To many South Koreans, the zigzag was another sign of Washington’s poor coordination in its North Korea policy.”

Policy analysts and media pundits tend to forget how bad things were with North Korea merely a few months ago. As Harry Kazianis of Center for the National Interest noted, “No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, you must give credit to the Trump administration for trying everything it can to break the cycle of talks-followed-by-tensions when it comes to dealing with North Korea.”

So why President Trump pulled the plug, for now, on talks with North Korea?

Closely following his first tweet on Aug. 24, President Trump made it clear, “… Additionally, because of our much tougher trading stance with China, I do not believe they are helping with the process of denuclearization …” “Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future,” continued the president, “most likely after our trading relationship with China is resolved. In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”

And “Trump is right,” says YJ Fischer, a CNN columnist and former U.S. diplomat on the Iranian nuclear agreement, “his trade war with China is undermining diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea.”

On Aug. 23, as the latest round of trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing failed to make any progress, “The Trump administration’s tariffs on $16 billion worth of Chinese goods went into effect. China retaliated in kind with its own tariffs on a similar amount of U.S. goods,” writes Fischer, “Trump has threatened to impose another round of tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports and Beijing is ready to keep the cycle going … So it’s no surprise that we’re seeing the diplomatic consequences of our deteriorating relationship with China.

The cancellation of Pompeo’s visit to North Korea shows that Trump may be beginning to grasp just how significant a problem this could be for U.S. national security.”

As a result, the Trump administration is shifting its focus from Pyongyang to Beijing in this most recent diplomatic zigzag and prioritizing the trade war with China over denuclearization talks with North Korea. Donald Trump’s acknowledgment that Beijing, not Pyongyang, has the power and ability to challenge U.S. policy objectives across the globe will have a long-lasting impact on America’s foreign policy in general and its North Korea policy in particular.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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