It was almost like the last time. Preparations were underway for another high-stakes meeting between old adversaries desperately seeking a way out of their nuclear standoff. And then, suddenly, they weren’t.
A day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sunnily announced that he would travel to Pyongyang next week alongside a new U.S. special representative for North Korea to make progress on removing Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons, Pompeo’s boss got on Twitter to call the whole thing off. “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,” Donald Trump wrote on Friday. It was the first time that the president, who just a couple months ago boasted that he had eliminated the “Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” has acknowledged so plainly that nuclear negotiations with North Korea aren’t going well.
Trump didn’t blame himself or even North Korea explicitly for the lack of progress. Instead he singled out China, with which the United States is currently engaged in an escalating trade war and with which North Korea conducts most of its trade, for not “helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were,” despite international sanctions against the North remaining in place. “Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved,” Trump added. “In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”
The decision to abruptly and dramatically walk away from talks, mixed with wistful and conciliatory language about his desire to walk right back into negotiations should circumstances allow, mirrors Trump’s move in May to cancel his summit in Singapore with Kim Jong Un. Trump’s problem at the time was the North Korean government’s fiery rhetoric against the United States and flaky behavior as U.S. officials sought to prepare for the historic meeting. In his letter to North Korea’s leader then, Trump veered from reminding Kim of America’s “massive and powerful” nuclear-weapons arsenal to urging him to “not hesitate to call me or write” if “you change your mind.”
The approach back then, which the nuclear expert Vipin Narang refers to as the “‘call me maybe’ strategy,” actually worked to an extent. North Korea didn’t instantly surrender its nukes and ship them off to Tennessee. But it did adopt a friendlier tone toward the United States and more seriously engage with U.S. negotiators, prompting Trump to declare the summit on again and eventually, in Singapore, to sign a statement with Kim in which North Korea vaguely promised to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The problem is that since then, North Korea hasn’t done a whole lot in the way of working toward that denuclearization. The North has observed a suspension of nuclear- and long-range-missile tests, begun making good on its pledge in Singapore to return what it claims are remains of American soldiers killed during the Korean War, and partially dismantled a missile-engine-test site that Kim told Trump he would destroy. But as commercial satellite images, leaked U.S. intelligence assessments, and most recently a study by the International Atomic Energy Agency have made clear in recent months, North Korea is otherwise proceeding with business as usual on developing its nuclear program. Even its work on taking apart the missile-engine-test site has stalled, according to a report this week by the website 38 North.
The speculation was that Pompeo was headed to North Korea to overcome the stalemate with some big breakthrough—perhaps a vow by North Korea to disclose the various components of its nuclear program in exchange for a vow by the United States to join with the two Koreas in finally declaring an end to the Korean War, which concluded in an armistice in 1953. Trump’s cancellation of the trip suggests that the administration might have gotten cold feet about whether North Korea was ready to deliver the kind of breakthrough the United States had in mind.
It’s unclear, however, whether Trump’s call-me-maybe gambit will prove as potent as it did last time, when Kim was thirsting for a long-sought sit-down with the American president and when the sanctions arrayed against him were firmer than they are today. In the interim, countries such as China and South Korea have begun prioritizing diplomatic engagement over economic pressure. “I’m much more skeptical this time because last time Kim wanted the summit just as badly,” Narang observed on Friday. “This time he’s in a much stronger position.”
Even Trump seemed to recognize that his move might not pay off as swiftly as it did before. After all, he said Pompeo would reschedule his visit “after our Trading relationship with China is resolved”—during a week in which the world’s two largest economies imposed billions of dollars in tariffs on each other in a titanic economic showdown whose resolution doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon.