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U.S. President Donald Trump reaches for North Korea leader Kim Jong Un after they signed documents at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Experts skeptical of Trump's claim China is holding up N. Korea progress


WASHINGTON (Circa) — Efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have stalled again, as President Donald Trump accuses China of undermining his “very good and warm” relationship with leader Kim Jong Un and the North Koreans grow impatient over bringing an end to a decades-old war.

In a series of tweets from his personal account Wednesday billed as a “STATEMENT FROM THE WHITE HOUSE,” President Trump claimed North Korea “is under tremendous pressure from China” because of his trade disputes with Beijing. He also complained that China is providing North Korea with money, fuel, and other assistance.

“Nonetheless, the President believes that his relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good and warm one,” Trump continued, “and there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games.”

He added that he can restart the military exercises in the future and they would be “far bigger than ever before” if he does.

The tweetstorm followed another dramatic announcement by Trump on Twitter last Friday that he was canceling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea because “I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The trip would have been Pompeo’s fourth to Pyongyang, and he planned to introduce new U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. The Friday tweets also cited trade tensions with China as an impediment to speedy denuclearization.

“Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved,” Trump tweeted.

“This assumes that North Korea was planning on making fast concessions on denuclearization and China prevented it from doing so. I don’t think that is true,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.
China could be more helpful, experts agree, but laying responsibility for the breakdown of the diplomatic process on Beijing suggests a misunderstanding of the dynamics at work in the region.

“This assumes that North Korea was planning on making fast concessions on denuclearization and China prevented it from doing so. I don’t think that is true,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

Few who have studied past failed negotiations with Pyongyang expected Kim to follow through promptly on disarming, regardless of China’s position. Sun also suggested Trump’s initial approach to China, linking better a trade deal to cooperation on North Korea, and his subsequent escalation of hostility toward Beijing on trade has left President Xi Jinping with little incentive to remain helpful.

“They learned that more progress on North Korea only frees Trump up to be tougher on China on trade, so I think the Chinese instinct is that it works better for China if the diplomacy on the North Korea issue is dragged out longer,” she said.

China has nominally supported tough United Nations sanctions on North Korea in accordance with Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, but its enforcement of those sanctions has been increasingly lax. The U.S. recently had to sanction Chinese and Russian entities for circumventing the restrictions.

“I think it is a mistake for any of us to think China is going to solve our security problem with North Korea…,” said David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a retired Army colonel. “I don’t blame China for the North Korea problem. I blame only one person and that’s Kim Jong Un.”

Kim wants a declaration of an end to the Korean War, relief from sanctions, and the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea, and he wants all of that before he gives up his nuclear weapons. The U.S. wants it the other way around, and even then, doubts remain about North Korea’s sincerity.

“If they get that far, I expect they will revert to their ultimate strategy, which of course is to cheat,” Maxwell said.

According to the Washington Post, Trump’s tweets Friday were sparked by an angry letter Pompeo had received from North Korea official Kim Yong Chol complaining that the U.S. has refused to sign a declaration of the end of the war.

“The North Koreans are really hung up on that…,” said James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. “From their perspective, that needs to be done first before we can actually move to a denuclearization process.

McKeon cited reporting by Vox this week that President Trump verbally indicated to Kim in Singapore that he was willing to sign a declaration ending the war soon. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Wednesday she is unaware of any verbal agreement, but the official position of the administration is still that steps toward denuclearization must be taken before the president will consider such a statement.

“President Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea has really been ad hoc,” McKeon said.

As a practical matter, the declaration would have little immediate impact. It would still be short of a legally-binding treaty that formally ends the war, and fighting has been halted by an armistice for 65 years.

“It is largely symbolic as it does not establish peace, it simply formalizes the end of active fighting, which as we know, has been over for decades,” said Jenny Town, managing editor of North Korea news and analysis site 38 North. “Nor does it guarantee an end to North Korea’s nuclear programs or ambitions. However, it can still be a very powerful symbolic measure.”

In addition to signaling a willingness of all parties move toward a lasting peace, the declaration would give Kim some domestic political cover to move away from nuclear weapons development.

“It still has security and strategic implications that past US and ROK administrations were reluctant to seriously consider without some level of confidence that the threat posed by North Korea’s WMD program would be eliminated,” Town said.
“It still has security and strategic implications that past US and ROK administrations were reluctant to seriously consider without some level of confidence that the threat posed by North Korea’s WMD program would be eliminated,” Town said.
If North Korea’s goal is driving U.S. troops off the peninsula, Maxwell said supplanting the armistice with a declaration of peace would not be enough. U.S. forces are present pursuant to a separate mutual defense treaty with the Republic of Korea to defend against any threats in the Pacific.

“That does not factor into negotiations with the North or with the Chinese,” he said.

Trump’s tweets also added to the uncertainty surrounding joint U.S./South Korea military exercises. The president announced in June he was halting the war games after meeting Kim in Singapore, echoing the North Korean leader by dismissing them as expensive and provocative.

Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters earlier this week that exercises may still occur next spring. Officials told the Associated Press preliminary work on the drills was already underway, because, contrary to the president’s claim that he can resume them “instantly,” the planning process takes several months.

Kim Jong Un marks 65th anniversary of armistice

Although the president’s public comments have questioned the value of the exercises, experts warn they do serve a strategic purpose and forgoing them could have negative consequences.

“We conduct exercises for three reasons,” Maxwell said. “One is readiness… The second is messaging and to demonstrate strength and resolve of the alliance, and the third is both. The last few years, we’ve really done them for both.”

Since U.S. forces rotate on one-year deployments, computer simulations typically held in the summer give new commanders and troops the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the South Korean military’s operations. Large-scale physical exercises are held in the spring when North Korean forces are at the height of readiness and conditions for an attack on South Korea are optimal.

“[The North Koreans] look at them as offensive, but these exercises are defensive in nature,” he said.

Officials told the AP they are working to mitigate any loss of training with smaller exercises and drills.

“The joint military exercises help maintain military readiness, but they can be executed in many ways. Conducting massive live fire drills are not the only way to accomplish these operational goals,” Town said.

Upon leaving Singapore in June, Trump immediately declared North Korea’s nuclear threat is over, but Kim has continued producing fissile material and little progress has been made toward dismantling the nuclear program. Trump’s cancellation of military exercises and Kim returning dozens of sets of human remains believed to be American soldiers are seen as signs of good faith, but not much more.

Senators cite progress, urge caution on North Korea

The language of the joint statement signed by Trump and Kim in Singapore left much unsaid, and the nearly three months since have not clarified whether the two countries have the same understanding of “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

“North Korea committed to working toward complete denuclearization. Nowhere in there was denuclearization defined,” McKeon said.

The latest diplomatic flare-up comes days before the start of what Maxwell said could be “the biggest month of Korean diplomacy we’ve seen in years.”

Kim and President Moon plan to hold their third face-to-face meeting in September as they continue to work toward normalized relations. On Sept. 9, Chinese President Xi will visit North Korea for the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding. The U.N. General Assembly opens on Sept. 18, and Moon is reportedly angling to have a declaration of peace by then.

Nauert said Wednesday no travel schedule for special envoy Biegun is available yet, but he will travel to the region “sometime probably within the next several weeks or so” to meet with his counterparts in Asia. She could not confirm whether he will visit North Korea during that first trip.

“What the president has done by canceling Pompeo’s visit, he’s kind of tapped the brakes on the process,” Maxwell said.

According to McKeon, the appointment of Biegun is similar to the previous administration’s use of a special representative to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran. He hopes this means the Trump administration is handing the process over to diplomats, but he is hesitant to make any predictions.

“It’s hard to be a soothsayer in this instance because things have taken such a crazy turn,” he said.

Town sees lower-level negotiations as potentially a more efficient next step at this point than more of the leader-driven diplomacy that keeps going off the rails.

“The more summits that take place, the more contradictory tweets that are posted, the more letters that are passed, the more this process plays out in public, the more this process becomes dependent on the will of the leaders,” she said. “Where that ends up is really unknown.”

How long it will take to get there is also unknown, but one thing experts are comfortable predicting is that a denuclearized North Korea is not in the immediate future.

“Everybody needs to take a deep breath and expect a long process, because this has been going on for over 70 years,” Maxwell said.

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