- Kevin Lim/The Strait Times/Handout/Getty
- Earlier this week, President Donald Trump abruptly canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea.
- Trump cited what he called China’s “tremendous pressure” against North Korea as a factor in the derailed negotiations with Pyongyang.
- But several reports indicated Trump may have agreed to an off-the-cuff, spoken contract with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to formally end the Korean War.
- The US has insisted North Korea must take steps toward nuclear disarmament before the US would make concessions such as joining a formal peace agreement.
- Experts say that the Trump administration is to blame for apparent confusion and that it is scapegoating China for the state of US-North Korea relations.
North Korea’s “belligerent” letter to President Donald Trump and the abrupt cancellation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang were all it took to throw cold water on the two countries’ diplomatic overtures following the June summit in Singapore.
But amid the impasse, Trump publicized what he called his “very good” and “warm” relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and found a scapegoat for the derailment of US-North Korean relations: China.
In several tweets this week, Trump expressed disappointment with China, which he accused of exerting “tremendous pressure” on North Korea in response to his ongoing trade war. Trump stopped short of reigniting his past fiery rhetoric, however, and left open the possibility that the trade disputes may be “resolved in time.”
“President Donald J. Trump feels strongly that North Korea is under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese Government,” Trump said in a tweet on Wednesday.
“At the same time, we also know that China is providing North Korea with considerable aid, including money, fuel, fertilizer and various other commodities. This is not helpful!”
- Shealah Craighead/White House
Last week, Trump cited insufficient progress “with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and suggested China was partly to blame for his decision to scrap Pompeo’s meeting in North Korea.
The proposed trip would have been the fourth for Pompeo and would have marked Stephen Biegun’s diplomatic debut as the new US envoy to Pyongyang.
“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),” Trump tweeted at the time.
Trump’s antagonistic stance toward China amid efforts to achieve what the US calls complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea was met with confusion among some experts.
A Vox report published Wednesday, citing two people familiar with the discussions, said Trump told Kim at the two leaders’ June summit in Singapore that he would sign a formal declaration to end the Korean War.
North Korean officials reportedly also believed Trump made the same promise to Kim Yong Chol, the vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, during the North Korean delegation’s visit to the White House in June before the summit.
- Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
‘Why don’t you call your president?’
For years, North Korea has called on the US to formally end the Korean War, which was halted with an armistice 65 years ago. But doing so would be a significant conciliatory gesture and would also throw into doubt the necessity of stationing US troops in South Korea – removal of those troops is opposed by US military leaders like Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
That proposal was reiterated by North Korea’s propaganda outlets in recent weeks. But North Korea’s insistence for the US to declare peace was equally met by the US State Department’s resolve for progress on the nuclear front, including full disclosure of North Korea’s nuclear assets.
This impasse was on full display after Trump nixed Pompeo’s trip, shortly after Kim Yong Chol sent what the Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin described as a “belligerent” letter to Pompeo.
Pompeo’s attempts to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons were also blocked during a meeting with Kim Yong Chol in July. North Korean officials, despite their track record of making provocative statements, reportedly pointed toward the Singapore declaration and were adamant that Trump first put an “end to hostilities,” according to a report by the Stanford University East Asian Studies lecturer Daniel Sneider.
As Pompeo continued to push for denuclearization, Kim Yong Chol held up a cellphone and taunted, “Why don’t you call your president?” according to Sneider, who affirmed his confidence of his sources to Business Insider.
North Korea’s propaganda outlets, which are known to make hyperbolic statements, also alluded to a prearranged agreement and suggested the US made a “unilateral and gangster-like demand” for denuclearization three weeks after the Singapore summit.
“The US side never mentioned the issue of establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, which is essential for defusing tension and preventing a war,” the Korean Central News Agency said, according to North Korean news monitor KCNA Watch. “It took the position that it would even backtrack on the issue it had agreed on to end the status of war under certain conditions and excuses.”
- White House
The Chinese connection
The deadlocked negotiations and Trump’s recent tweetstorm have puzzled foreign-policy experts. China, one of North Korea’s closest strategic and economic allies, begrudgingly agreed to the United Nations’ sanctions against the country following its nuclear and missile tests in 2017.
But analysts say Beijing remains somewhat suspicious of North Korea’s motives and continues to uphold international sanctions, despite the State Department’s warnings that it observed a “modest” easing of sanctions against Pyongyang.
“Although China does play a key role in enforcing existing international sanctions designed to pressure North Korea and to change its negotiating calculus, China is not to blame for the Trump administration’s contradictory and inconsistent follow-up from the Singapore summit,” Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Business Insider.
“As a result, North Korea is digging in and resisting calls for further dramatic steps on denuclearization,” Kimball added.
The joint-declaration statement from the Singapore summit, which has been criticized for being overly broad and vague, also left room for confusion between the two countries.
“Trump and Pompeo also failed to reach written agreement Kim Jong-un on definition and scope of ‘denuclearization,'” Kimball said. “This creates risk of misunderstanding about what North Korea must do.”
Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat who is a speechwriter for West Wing Writers, described Trump’s remarks as an “unhinged rant disguised as a statement.”
“It’s true that North Korea is in a stronger position when China is on its side diplomatically and is less committed to enforcing sanctions,” Oba told Business Insider. “But China is not the deciding factor in North Korea’s behavior.”
“I think [Trump] is faulting China for US frustrations with North Korea on denuclearization,” Oba added. “He is operating on a mistaken belief that he can get leverage by linking US-China trade issues and North Korea policy.”
China in turn responded to Trump’s claims and described it as “irresponsible and absurd logic.”
“A lot of people, like me, feel that the US is first in the world when it comes to twisting the truth, and irresponsible and absurd logic,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, according to the South China Morning Post. “This logic is not easily understood by all.”