An untethered White House has plunged America into an identity crisis of sorts. It is increasingly evident that Washington cannot quite decide whether to continue to lead or to abdicate its role as an arbiter of international peace, human rights, freedom and democracy.
Twitter diplomacy, unilateralism, backtracking, escalatory rhetoric and unorthodox maneuvering have only alienated allies, coddled America’s adversaries and distracted from urgent international priorities. As a result, this rudderless reshaping of US foreign policy has fumbled incredible opportunities more often than it has scored crucial victories.
This was evident in the highly unusual 2018 summit between the US and North Korea, at which President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un hoped to completely denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and settle a 65-year-old stalemate once and for all.
One year later, this historic encounter of opposites has crumbled, and the cheerful optimism, pomp and circumstance that came with it are all just a distant memory. Working-level talks have since stalled after yet another failed summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
US special representative to North Korea Stephen Beigun is still waiting for a response to his letter to North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui. Pyongyang has also stopped cooperating in inter-Korean projects, which South Korea was keen on as a tool to de-escalate tensions and foster closer ties in lieu of the less-favored reunification.
In a particularly stinging blow to the White House, North Korea has also resumed its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs not long after a triumphant Trump had declared that Pyongyang was no longer a nuclear threat. Despite the assertions at both summits, North Korea left its ballistic and nuclear missiles programs intact, and new revelations indicate that the country’s capabilities are advancing at a rapid pace.
To add further insult to injury, Trump’s effusive characterizations of Kim Jong Un are now overshadowed by reports that senior officials involved in the failed Singapore summit were executed by firing squad. Some pundits doubt the veracity of these reports given that they were sourced from an extreme right-wing South Korean newspaper. However, such executions — and there have been many— will not be as alarming as a US president wilfully ignoring them in pursuit of a warm, personal relationship with a brutal dictator.
The US, on the other hand, has returned to the familiar yet bizarre world of conflicting statements and contradictory positions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has elected to follow a diplomatic route that mixes firmness and consistency while leaving a door open for dialogue. John Bolton, the national security adviser, has adopted a more hardline approach, pointing to North Korea’s missile tests as violations of UN Security Council resolutions that should justify the ratcheting up of sanctions, as well as pressuring China and Russia on sanctions enforcement.
Conversely, President Trump disagrees completely. Initially he denied that the missile tests took place, then dismissed them as attention-seeking behavior, and ultimately declared that the tests were unimportant since the short-range missiles that were tested are incapable of reaching the US.
In effect, Washington does not appear to be in any rush to resume high-level talks or make any tangible diplomatic moves. So far, there is an unwillingness to pressure Pyongyang in accordance with precedent; nor will Washington further empower an enterprising Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, to keep making overtures in the name of closer economic cooperation.
As a result, Washington's North Korea policy is now caught in a tug of war between an amiable White House full of glowing praise for Kim, and the reality that the US will not unilaterally lift sanctions without Pyongyang unilaterally denuclearizing. There is also the question of what both countries mean by denuclearization.
There is little to suggest that Kim will completely abandon his nuclear missiles, a key pillar of his unquestionable authority in North Korea and the most important strategic bargaining chip in the complex, high-stakes negotiations for denuclearization.
On the other hand, US policy desires a verifiably nuclear-free North Korea before easing sanctions. It requires nuclear inspectors to be given unfettered access, which North Korea views as a violation of its sovereignty. Without trust-building mechanisms and permanent reconciliation, there is little incentive for Pyongyang to allow inspectors in, or for US officials to trust North Korean reports that facilities are being dismantled in compliance with Washington’s demands.
On a more positive note, President Trump is expected to visit South Korea at the end of June. Before that, South Korean officials are looking to arrange another meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas. It is unclear whether Moon will highlight the paths open to Pyongyang to break the deadlock, given that his focus has always been on establishing stable inter-Korean relations ahead of larger denuclearization, or even reunification, goals.
If anything, the South Korean president will probably echo similar sentiments to those of Russian President Vladimir Putin in April this year, i.e. a commitment by North Korea to continue dialogue with Washington. China is also on board with the idea of more talks, acknowledging that denuclearization is a complex issue that cannot be solved overnight — a minor slight aimed at the rather short Hanoi and Singapore summits at which Trump failed to achieve his objectives.
For now, “fire and fury” has been supplanted by overtures and the nurturing of a personal bond between Trump and Kim. Whether that will translate into progress in talks and positive changes on the ground remains to be seen. However, even this low-hanging fruit remains elusive given the pressing issues Washington faces in Asia from the trade spat with Beijing, a controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan and escalating tensions with Iran.