Forget North Korea’s ‘gangster’ remarks; North Korean diplomacy is a long game

Forget North Korea’s ‘gangster’ remarks; North Korean diplomacy is a long game

By Luke Vargas   
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo begins a second day of diplomat talks in North Korea on July 6, 2018. Courtesy: State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo begins a second day of diplomat talks in North Korea on July 6. (Courtesy: State Department) Spokesperson Heather Nauert

Experts say Pompeo should increase his involvement in negotiations with North Korea and model his efforts after John Kerry's pursuit of the Iran deal.

UNITED NATIONS – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrapped up two days of meetings in North Korea over the weekend. Hours after Pompeo departed, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry chided the U.S. for repeating its “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.”

That comment got a lot of media coverage. Some implied Pompeo had been played or that President Trump’s much-touted diplomatic summit in Singapore had come to naught, especially amid reports of North Korean continued nuclear activity:

“Overall, the focus on this gangster comment – ignoring 90 percent of the rest of the statement – I think really did a disservice to what it actually said.”

Joel Wit is the founder of 38 North, a D.C. research group dedicated to North Korea.

“The Singapore summit declaration did not mean that North Korea would stop everything it was doing in the nuclear and missile areas right away, and nor would I find that to be a reasonable expectation.”

Ambassador Robert Gallucci was America’s top negotiator with North Korea in the mid 1990’s and says the public should set reasonable expectations for progress. So should President Trump:

“It’s unfortunate, I think, when the President essentially does his version of ‘mission accomplished!’ and says we don’t have a threat from the North anymore – you can sleep tonight. That’s really flat-out misleading.”

Several paragraphs after its “gangster” allegation, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry did suggest some receptivity to further talks, saying, “we still cherish our good faith in President Trump.”

“If Singapore did create a reservoir of good-feeling, that’s a good thing and something that may be useful to sustain us as some bad things happen,” explains Gallucci. “But that’s all that was. It’s something that is a good springboard to go into a process.”

With full North Korean denuclearization possibly still years or decades away, Wit says Pompeo will need to expand American diplomatic engagement, and he could do worse than model his efforts after John Kerry’s sustained work in pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal:

“Maybe I shouldn’t use those magic words – ’The Iran deal’ – but at least the process whereby that was reached might not be a bad model if Secretary of State Pompeo wants to spend a lot of his capital and a lot of his time reaching a deal.”

One option, suggests Wit, is for Pompeo to appoint a senior official to oversee all contacts with North Korea. But at the end of the day, the secretary himself will need to have a sustained hand in the process.

“Right now, flying into Pyongyang two days at a time, leaving, coming back a month later, having a working group working on specific issues at the DMZ – that’s not going to do it. We’re not going to get there quickly with that kind of progress.”

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