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Trump’s North Korea strategy isn’t working

North Korea is still building missiles despite Trump’s optimism.

President Donald Trump says relations with North Korea are getting better. A new report on missiles shows they’re not.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

New evidence surfaced Wednesday showing that no matter what President Donald Trump says, talks with North Korea aren’t going well.

CNN reported that Pyongyang has expanded one of its long-range missile bases. That contradicts the Trump administration, which maintains that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to dismantle his nuclear program — not improve it — during his June meeting in Singapore with Trump.

But the new satellite imagery, added to images last month showing Pyongyang is continuing to develop its missile program, makes it clear that for now North Korea has no intention of granting Trump’s wishes.

“Despite US optimism, Kim is planning for a future in which he still holds onto his nuclear and missile programs,” Eric Brewer, who worked on North Korea in Trump’s National Security Council, told me.

That US optimism is misplaced.

Kim said he planned to make and deploy more missiles during his 2018 New Year’s Day speech and has continued to follow through on that plan. North Korea never said it would stop building weapons, including missiles that might carry nuclear weapons. So it’s not that North Korea is deceiving the United States, but that Washington is willfully ignoring Pyongyang’s own stated policy.

That’s already bad, but it could potentially get even worse. Trump and Kim badly want a summit with one another, making North Korea look good while likely producing no significant result.

North Korea really only wants to meet with Trump. That’s a problem.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Stephen Biegun, a former Ford Motor Company executive, to be America’s special envoy for North Korea back in August. His main job is to lead the day-to-day, working-level negotiations with Kim’s regime.

The problem is that while Biegun has met with allies in Asia — including South Korea — he has yet to meet with his North Korean counterparts. Multiple sources have told me that Biegun has struggled to make any headway and is effectively powerless at this point.

That’s not entirely his fault. Trump promised Kim in Singapore that he would sign a peace declaration that would semi-officially end hostilities between the US and North Korea. That’s something Pyongyang has wanted for years, in part because it would give the regime political space to reduce its nuclear arsenal, but that only Trump has seemed willing to offer. Other administrations partly didn’t want to sign the declaration because it would reduce pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear program, and they didn’t want to scare South Korea — a staunch US ally.

So it makes sense that the North Koreans only want to deal with Trump and, when they absolutely have to, Pompeo. The secretary met with Kim in October and agreed Trump and Kim should meet for a second summit, which now seems likely in early 2019. Trump told reporters on December 1 that three unnamed sites are under consideration for a summit in January or February.

But experts say that’s a bad idea, and the Trump administration instead needs to push back on North Korea’s desire for big meetings.

“The US needs to disabuse Kim that he can hold out for the summit,” Brewer, who is now at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, told me. “The US should not hold a summit unless there is a working-level process in place and something for the two leaders to agree on. We need to be clear that there will be no pageantry without process.”

Without a process, Trump and Kim will meet with likely no progress on either a peace declaration or denuclearization having actually been made by the end of it. A summit would just allow Kim to take photos alongside the world’s most powerful person, further legitimizing him on the world stage and with his people back home, experts say.

Kim may actually meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul before the end of the year, but both Koreas are still working out the details, sources say.

So while it’s scary that North Korea still builds bases where it can shoot weapons, the current state of Washington-Pyongyang talks is somehow scarier. If neither side can figure out how to capitalize on peace, they may turn to more familiar territory: threatening war all over again.