South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Thursday confirmed that Pyongyang postponed a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean Worker’s Party Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol in New York. The State Department said the postponement of the gathering, which aimed to prepare for a second Trump-Kim summit, is purely a scheduling issue. President Trump further said he is “very happy with how it’s going with North Korea” and hopes to meet Kim Jong Un early next year. But despite the president’s confidence in continuing talks, Pyongyang’s decision may reflect a precipitous division between Washington and Pyongyang on denuclearization.
In recent weeks, North Korean state media outlets have increasingly expressed dissatisfaction with the U.S. negotiating position of keeping all sanctions in place until North Korea’s final and fully verified denuclearization. They urged the United States and South Korea to lift sanctions, describing them as the primary barrier to diplomatic progress. Most notably, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) stated that North Korea could restart overt nuclear development if America fails to lift sanctions as a “corresponding reply.” Nevertheless, President Trump on Wednesday reaffirmed the current U.S. position.
KCNA also criticized the U.S.-based NGO Human Rights Watch for issuing a comprehensive report on widespread sexual violence against North Korean women. Pyongyang’s Korean Association for Human Rights Studies said this report was a serious political provocation against the North.
North Korea is notorious for canceling meetings as a hard negotiating tactic to voice its grievances and extort concessions. Apart from sanctions, Pyongyang also may seek to challenge the recent formation of the U.S. and South Korea’s joint Korea Working Group, which is led by the State Department’s special representative on North Korea, Stephen Biegun. This week, North Korean propaganda outlets denounced the group as an indicator of U.S. interference in inter-Korean affairs. Over the past few months, the Kim regime hinted that it preferred to negotiate directly with President Trump rather than through working-level mechanisms.
The Trump administration should not comply with North Korea’s demands just for the sake of continuing diplomacy. A key purpose of diplomatically engaging North Korea was to test if Kim Jong Un made the strategic decision to denuclearize. But so far, the North Koreans have failed to provide a meaningful concession of its own indicating that it has made this strategic decision. More importantly, satellite imagery suggests that ballistic missile development and uranium mining activity continue, undermining the credibility of Kim Jong Un’s earlier signed pledges to denuclearize.
Washington should continue enforcing sanctions and remain willing to walk away from future dialogue if Pyongyang’s intransigence persists. Just a few months ago, after receiving a private letter from North Korea’s Kim Yong Chol that berated the United States for its stance, President Trump made the right choice to cancel Secretary Pompeo’s trip to North Korea. The Trump administration should consider walking away again to enhance its diplomatic leverage over Pyongyang.
Mathew Ha is a research associate focused on North Korea at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.