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Trump Cancels Pompeo’s Trip to North Korea. That’s Probably for the Best.

President Trump announced on Twitter Friday that he had instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to travel to North Korea for a planned trip next week to attempt to revive the flagging denuclearization effort. Trump cited a lack of “sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”. This was his first public acknowledgment that denuclearization is not proceeding according to plan. He also blamed North Korea’s ally China, saying that because of U.S.-China trade tensions, “I do not believe they are helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were.” The president was sure to add: “In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”

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It’s true that despite some good-will gestures, there’s been little progress in talks on denuclearization. It’s also true that China—and also Russia, which Trump didn’t mention—have let up on the economic pressure on North Korea since the June 12 Singapore summit, though Trump’s hardly in a position to complain about that given that he himself declared the crisis resolved and vouched for Kim’s good intentions at the time.

The fundamental problem is that both countries believe they signed a different agreement. The U.S. maintains that North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear weapons; North Korea thinks it did no such thing, agreeing only to a general process of denuclearizing “the Korean peninsula,” which would also entail a removal of U.S. forces.

What’s even more odd about this situation is that both countries insist they have an understanding with the other side’s leader but that others are standing in the way. Trump  as well as  his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, are insisting that Kim made a commitment to denuclearize. So, China’s getting the blame for not applying enough pressure, though it’s not quite clear why China would need to pressure Kim if he genuinely wanted to give up his weapons.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans insist that they have an understanding with Trump and that Pompeo’s aggressive demands since the summit violate the spirit of that understanding. “The DPRK stands firm in its determination and commitment for implementing the DPRK-U.S. Joint Statement in a responsible and good-faith manner,” foreign minister Ri Yong-ho said after his last meeting with Pompeo earlier this month, also in Singapore. “What is alarming however is the insistent moves manifested within the U.S. to go back to the old, far from its leader’s intention.” Last week, the North Korean foreign ministry issued another statement blaming senior U.S. officials for “going against the intention of president Trump” by criticizing the lack of progress on denuclearization.

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In other words: We made a great deal with Trump where we don’t have to give up our nukes right away. We like Trump. Who’s this jerk?

Canceling Pompeo’s trip now is a surprising move, coming just a day after the appointment of a new special representative for the talks. Steve Biegun, a Ford Motor Co.
executive with a background in national security and foreign policy, was to accompany Pompeo to North Korea next week.

According to a column by the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin on Thursday, frustration with the lack of progress is growing within the administration—including for the president himself, despite his public optimism—and there was a growing sense that this trip was a make-or-break moment for the diplomatic process.

If that’s true, it’s probably for the best that the meeting was canceled. Pompeo and Biegun were unlikely to get anything much from the North Koreans on this trip and it was dangerous to put so much pressure on one meeting. Past experience, such as when Trump initially canceled the Singapore summit with Kim in May, shows that the North Koreans can suddenly become much more conciliatory when the U.S. walks away from the table.

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I’ve been critical of the Trump administration’s North Korea diplomacy, don’t believe Kim has any intention of unilaterally giving up his nuclear weapons, and find Trump’s public praise for the dictator both morally unjustifiable and strategically dubious. That said, letting both sides cool off for a moment and seeing what the North Koreans might be willing to concede to get things back on track seem like better moves right now than sending Pompeo to Pyongyang to be lectured and rebuked again.