Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Imagine the howls on the right if President Barack Obama had said that a rogue state’s leader bent on becoming a nuclear power “shares the objectives with the American people.” Indeed, we did hear their howls whenever Obama or then-Secretary of State John Kerry painted a rosy picture of the potential for a new era in relations with a wanna-be nuclear power. They, too, thought that a rogue regime really wanted economic progress, having failed to recognize that the nature of the regime and its corresponding mind-set made it impossible for the regime to give up its nuclear ambitions.
You can thus understand our puzzlement over the Trump administration’s decision to sneer at incremental deal-making and instead bet — with the president’s prestige and credibility at stake — on a once-in-a-lifetime deal in which a totalitarian state decides to change its character. For Obama, it was Iran; for President Trump, it seems to be North Korea that has bedazzled the administration with visions of glory.
Judging from the secretary of state’s comments on Sunday, the administration sounds increasingly as unrealistic as the Obama administration did — before it started trading away promised provisions to get a deal with Iran that it so desperately wanted. And naturally, since Republicans bob their heads up and down in response to virtually anything Trump says, you won’t hear much criticism of the Pollyannaish rhetoric coming from the Trump team.
Appearing on the Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounded irrationally exuberant and strangely naive on “Fox News Sunday”:
POMPEO: Chris, we’ve had discussions on how this would proceed. There’s still a great deal of detail to be worked on. In the coming weeks, we will continue to work on that so we can be in a good spot on June 12th in Singapore for President Trump. But make no mistake about it: we’ve done this before, right? We’ve done trade for trade, moment for a moment. You give me X, I give you Y, and it has failed repeatedly.
I think Chairman Kim understands that. I think he appreciates the fact that this is going to have to be different and big and special, and something that has never been undertaken before. If we are going to get to this historic outcome, both sides have to be prepared to take a truly measures to achieve it.
CHRIS WALLACE: And how confident are you? Because you’re going to be putting the president of the United States in a room with Kim in Singapore with the whole world watching. How confident are you that not only he understands it, but that he’s going to have to — that he’s going to deliver on our expectations?
POMPEO: Well, to quote President Trump, we’ll see, right? We are not to the place yet, but we should be remotely close to declaring that we’ve achieved what it is we want. There’s a great deal of work that remains. Our eyes are wide open with respect to the risks, but it is — it is our fervent hope that Chairman Kim wants to make a strategic change, a strategic change in the direction for his country and his people. And if he’s prepared to do that, President Trump is prepared to assure that there’s going to be a successful transition.
But consider then how high Pompeo has put the bar for success. Pompeo on “Face the Nation” promised practically a miracle:
MARGARET BRENNAN: Have you defined denuclearization?
POMPEO: Yeah. Total. Full. Complete.
BRENNAN: That means all dismantling —
BRENNAN: Stopping computer modeling —
BRENNAN: Getting rid of the centrifuges, stopping all enrichment, getting inspectors on the ground.
POMPEO: Yes ma’am. The same deal we should have done with Iran.
The problem is that virtually no one (politicians, experts, former officials) on either side of the aisle thinks North Korea will ever agree to complete denuclearization, including anytime/anywhere inspections (in a closed, police state?!). The administration seems to be swinging for the fences, with a blindfold over its eyes.
If Trump’s team paints a rosy picture that our opponents really want what we want, and then defines what we want as something virtually impossible to obtain, it is hard to see how the administration won’t fail spectacularly. We sure seem to be setting ourselves up either to come away with nothing or to put such a premium on making a deal that we give up too much and ignore too much. Pompeo sounds as though he is dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev, not the leader of a regime whose entire purpose is to unify the peninsula — on its own terms — as the only legitimate government of the Korean people:
For Pyongyang, the Korean War never ended, and unconditional victory over South Korea remains its aim. … To renounce such weapons would be tantamount to giving up its vision of reunification … and with it the justification the regime has used since its founding for all the terrible sacrifices it has demanded of its people. …
The neutralization and effective removal of the United States and the U.S. alliance system from the Korean equation remains utterly essential from Pyongyang’s perspective.
That objective, however, cannot be achieved by the DPRK’s conventional capabilities, today or in the foreseeable future. To deter, coerce and punish the United States, the DPRK must possess nuclear weaponry and the ballistic missiles capable of delivering them into the heart of the American enemy. This central strategic fact explains why North Korea has been assiduously pursuing its nuclear development and missile development programs for over thirty years–at terrible expense to its people’s livelihood, and despite all adverse repercussions on its international relations.
That is as true now as it was in 2005, when Nicholas Eberstadt wrote it.
Moreover, Pompeo would do well to heed Eberstadt’s warning that “those who hope for a ‘win-win’ solution to the North Korean nuclear impasse must recognize the plain fact that Pyongyang does not now engage in win-win bargaining, and never has. The historical record is completely clear: Pyongyang believes in zero-sum solutions, preferring outcomes that entail not only DPRK victories, but also face-losing setbacks for its opponents. From the DPRK’s perspective, win-win solutions are not only impractical (because they leave adversaries unnecessarily strong), but actually immoral as well.”
With about four weeks to go before the North Korea summit, a huge amount can change. North Korean negotiators might fess up they are not unilaterally ridding Pyongyang of nuclear weapons. They might clarify that, as North Korean rulers have always demanded, denuclearization means that we abandon South Korea — both by removing troops and shoving Seoul out from the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Alternatively, Pompeo might conclude that the only way to “win” at the summit is to leave things vague and initiate ongoing talks at lower levels, which sounds an awful lot like what Trump’s predecessors have tried. Come to think of it, Trump will have done worse than his predecessors, who didn’t need to give North Korea a public relations coup simply to settle into rounds of endless diplomatic wrangling.
Pompeo must stop promising the unattainable based on the hope that the North Korean regime has fundamentally changed its purpose. The administration should start figuring out where we could conclude some important, verifiable steps toward reducing tension. Why not test North Korea’s “good faith” by demanding that international inspectors be allowed to enter the country to determine the extent of the regime’s nuclear program? If that seems impossible, consider the likelihood that we will reach a deal that resembles Pompeo’s description.