US And North Korea Suffer Communication Breakdown

Remember when Donald Trump said he and Kim Jong-un fell in love? Well now it seems they just don’t talk anymore.

Instead, the US and North Korea appear to be staring one another down, waiting for the other to blink or make a move. And neither appears willing to give way.

Discussions aimed at setting up a second summit between the two leaders didn’t happen as planned this week.

Chairman Kim’s aide, the hardliner Kim Yong-chol was supposed to travel to New York and meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The official line is that the meeting will be rescheduled and Mr Trump said he’s “very happy” with how things are going, and that he’s in “no rush” while sanctions remain in place.

Although officials from the Foreign Ministry did express “disappointment”.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in warned me in his BBC interview that he expected “bumps and bruises” on the way as the international community tries to persuade North Korea to disarm.

But it’s hard not to feel that both the momentum for talks and the opportunity to engage with North Korea may be slipping away.

Even at a lower level, the new US North Korean envoy Stephen Biegun has been in his job for over two months and has still not met his Pyongyang counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Choi Sun-hui.

Complete denuclearisation?

The root of this standoff is that North Korea and the US have never really agreed on the goalposts of “denuclearisation”.

What do they actually mean when they talk about disarmament? Yes the two leaders signed an agreement in Singapore, but the lack of detail in the deal we talked about back then is now coming back to haunt these talks and potentially scupper progress.

From the start, Pyongyang has been clear. They will not unilaterally disarm. They want a staged process where they give a little and get something in return.

That means, right now they feel they have done enough to warrant sanctions relief.

A missile test is more likely to anger an unpredictable Donald Trump who hates when his administration shows any sign of weakness. It would, once again, raise international condemnation and is unlikely to have the desired effect of sanctions relief.

President Moon said Mr Kim told him he would allow inspectors in, and there have been reports in South Korea that preparations are being made. This would allow Pyongyang to argue that they are once again keeping their end of the bargain.

North Korea pledged to close it earlier this year, but only if the US takes corresponding measures. It would be very difficult politically for Mr Kim to do this first, so the US would have to put something good on the table for Pyongyang to take this step.

The two leaders may prefer dealing with one another directly. But it still needs talks to take place between those lower down the chain of command to sort out the details of a deal. A timetable for disarmament and corresponding US actions for instance.

Without those details on paper, as you can see, we end up with what is the equivalent of this diplomatic game of chicken which puts president Mr Trump’s much applauded North Korea policy in danger of crashing.

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