WASHINGTON (Circa) — Denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea appear to be on hold after President Donald Trump announced he was canceling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's fourth trip to North Korea scheduled for this week.
The move put a damper on Trump's high expectations following his June summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. It further raised questions about whether the administration's strategy of engagement can be successful or if the two sides will inevitably return to "fire and fury."
In a Friday tweet, Trump said he asked Pompeo to forgo his scheduled trip to North Korea "because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
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 J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 24, 2018
Before Trump's announcement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nation's nuclear watchdog, issued a report concluding that North Korea was continuing to develop and expand its nuclear weapons program saying the activities "are a cause for grave concern."
The agency acknowledged it has a "limited" and "declining" knowledge of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The regime suspended IAEA inspections of its Yongbyon nuclear site in 2009 and has not allowed inspectors into the country since.
President Trump left open the possibility of future talks at an unknown date after the United States and China, an ally of the Kim regime, resolve their trade dispute.
North Korea responded sharply to the cancellation, accusing the United States of "double-dealing."
"We cannot but take a serious note of the double-dealing attitudes of the U.S. as it is busy staging secret drills involving man-killing special units while having a dialogue with a smile on its face," read an opinion piece in North Korea's state-run Rodong Sinmun.
The editorial claimed the United States was staging military exercises and had moved special forces units and the USS Michigan, a nuclear submarine, to the Jinhae naval base of South Korea.
"Such acts prove that the U.S. is hatching a criminal plot to unleash a war against the DPRK and commit a crime which deserves merciless divine punishment in case the U.S. fails in the scenario of the DPRK’s unjust and brigandish denuclearisation first," the paper charged.
U.S. military officials dismissed the report as "far-fetched," and said the description of the movement of U.S. warships was "completely false."
The United States did not match Pyongyang's bellicose rhetoric. President Trump signed off his tweet sending "warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!"
...Additionally, because of our much tougher Trading stance with China, I do not believe they are helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were (despite the UN Sanctions which are in place)...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 24, 2018
That does not mean the threat has been reduced, experts explained. Relations between the U.S. and North Korea could still take a turn toward confrontation if the Trump administration decides that engagement and diplomacy are not producing results.
"There is a real risk that hawks in the Trump administration will try to sell North Korea’s failure to take significant steps toward denuclearization... as evidence that Pyongyang is not serious about negotiations, when in reality, the Trump administration’s mixed messages have contributed to the current impasse," warned said Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.
The two sides appear to be stuck in a "stalemate," she continued, in part because of the "vague, ambiguous goals" President Trump and Chairman Kim signed in Singapore without a clear framework for how to achieve them. "As a result, each side expects the other to make the next move."
More than anything, the decision to cancel Pompeo's trip to North Korea reflects "the dangers of unrealistic expectations," advised Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North and research analyst at the Stimson Center.
"While the North Koreans have committed to working towards a mutual goal of denuclearization, there has never been a document or agreement on how the two sides will get there," she said.
After the meeting in Singapore, Trump sounded confident that he would succeed where other presidents failed in securing a nuclear deal with North Korea. He returned from the meeting declaring an end to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.
Members of the Trump administration have expressed growing frustration with North Korea for allegedly not living up to the terms of the Singapore Summit declaration, in which North Korea agreed to "work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
"We're waiting for the North Koreans to begin the process of denuclearization, which they committed to in Singapore and which they've not yet done," National Security Adviser John Bolton said earlier this month in response to reports that North Korea was continuing to expand its nuclear program.
The latest IAEA report, which will be officially submitted in September, documents new activity around the Yongbyon nuclear site consistent with centrifuge enrichment and indications of the construction of a light water reactor. The agency also identified activity around Pyongyang that it believes to be related to its nuclear program.
"Frustrations are high on both sides," Town said, but North Korea "is not acting out of character" by continuing work on its nuclear program.
The Singapore Summit declaration was not a technical agreement for disarmament or North Korea freezing its nuclear or missile programs, she continued. "It was unrealistic to think you could get to the end of the road quickly, given how little trust there is of each other, or that this would be a one-sided process."
After less than one year of relative calm since President Trump and Kim Jong Un were exchanging threats of nuclear annihilation, concerns are still looming over the prospect of a nuclear conflict.
"No one on President Trump's team, other than President Trump, thinks that North Korea is offering to give up its nuclear weapons," said Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and leading expert on North Korea's nuclear program.
Trump appears committed to the denuclearization process now, he noted, but others in his administration are not. Once Trump "flips" and recognizes North Korea's fundamental unwillingness to disarm, Lewis anticipates events unraveling with "disastrous consequences."
Lewis details such consequences in his speculative novel, "The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States." The book describes a future after diplomacy breaks down between President Trump and Kim Jong Un and a series of escalations and miscalculations result in a North Korean nuclear attack on the United States.
It is not yet clear what the Trump administration's next move will be after calling off the U.S. trip to North Korea.
Trump may be repeating a negotiating tactic he used before the Singapore Summit when he temporarily canceled the meeting over North Korean hostility. It could also be an attempt to delay negotiations until the new U.S. Special Representative to North Korea, Steve Biegun, is properly authorized and prepared to push nuclear talks forward with Pyongyang and U.S. allies.
Secretary Pompeo announced Biegun's appointment late last week, saying he would "lead negotiations and spearhead diplomatic efforts" to achieve the ultimate goal of a verified denuclearization of North Korea. Biegun, who is expected to take Pompeo's place in some aspects of negotiations, was scheduled to accompany the secretary of state on his trip before it was canceled.
Given the amount of groundwork that must be covered before Trump and Kim can meet again, calling off the meeting may work to both sides' advantage, explained David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. In July, Pompeo returned from his first post-Singapore Summit trip to North Korea without making any progress beyond the broad goals outlined in the Summit declaration.
"If Pompeo came back a second time empty-handed, it would sure make the process look like it's failing," Maxwell noted. "Paradoxically, it's in both the North Korean and U.S. interest not to have the meeting. By canceling—or hopefully postponing—it will buy time for further discussions and better groundwork to be laid."
Some of that work will likely be done by South Korea, which has served as a major broker between Washington and Pyongyang. In early September, South Korean President Moon Jae-in will hold a third summit meeting with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is also expected to make his first trip to North Korea next month.
In his Friday tweet, Trump suggested that China has been hindering the denuclearization effort in retaliation for U.S. tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese exports.
Since trade talks between the Washington and Beijing collapsed in June, China has adopted a looser approach to enforcing international sanctions on North Korea. In the past month, the Treasury Department has sanctioned multiple Chinese firms and Russian entities for facilitating illicit shipments of goods to North Korea.
Experts warned the Trump administration against using China as a scapegoat for more fundamental disagreements between the United States and North Korea.
"Turning China into a scapegoat for the current impasse on denuclearization negotiations only puts future progress at risk," Towns stressed. "Better sanctions enforcement will not solve the disconnect between Pyongyang and Washington on what comes next."
China could do more to enforce sanctions, she acknowledged, but that will not solve the overarching problem that Pyongyang and Washington are not on the same page in terms of the scope of negotiations of the sequence of action.
Lewis argued that President Trump is looking to blame China for his own shortcomings. "China is not playing the role of spoiler. Trump is doing that himself," he said.
China has a vested interest in any disarmament talks with North Korea and does not want to be shut out of U.S.-North Korea negotiations. It is unclear whether Trump and Xi will be able to isolate the trade dispute and work together on a nuclear disarmament plan for the Korean Peninsula.