‘No timeline for denuclearization’: What is Trump’s plan?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (l) and United States President Donald Trump shake hands.Image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES

“We have no time limit. We have no speed limit. We’re just going through the process,” U.S. President Donald Trump recently said in regards to North Korea’s denuclearization. This statement makes one wonder if there ever was a time when Trump had said that he wasn’t going to fall for North Korea’s stalling tactics and promised a swift and comprehensive solution to the issue. This is in stark contrast to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement after the U.S- North Korea summit, “We are hoping to achieve important steps towards denuclearization before the end of Trump’s first presidential term in 2021.”

Looking at the situation in a generous light, one could infer that Trump didn’t realize the complexity involved in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula before the summit, and has since decided to slow down and adopt a step by step approach. Despite initially supporting a fast-paced radical solution that was different to anything attempted by his predecessors, once he understood how difficult the problem was going to be, he instead decided to pursue a gradual solution while building mutual trust between North Korea and the U.S. One can only hope that this plan will yield results.

Skeptical of results happening within Trump’s term

However, there is significant concern that the impetus behind denuclearization has stalled in the midst of statements like, “There is no time limit to denuclearization”. Even if an all-out blitzkrieg approach was to be pursued, there would be no guarantee of success within Trump’s first term. Slowing down the process even further leads to doubts over whether any tangible results will be achieved at all. If time passes idly until another president takes office, the chances are that North Korea will ask for a brand-new restart in the denuclearization process.

The most curious point is whether or not Trump understands these concerns. By saying ‘there is no time limit’, Trump is giving legitimacy to North Korea’s stalling tactics and could possibly cause the entire negotiation to go up in smoke. Did Trump really not know the potential ramifications of his actions when he decided to take this stance?

Could Trump have had something else in mind?

Unless Trump is suffering from an extreme situational awareness problem, there is a possibility that he had a very specific intent behind his words.

The first thing to consider is the upcoming U.S midterm elections in November. With the elections just around the corner it would be near politically fatal to admit that the negotiations with North Korea have failed and try to change tactics. The Trump administration needs to bring all of its accomplishments from the past two years to the table in the midterms and North Korea is likely to be an important topic of discussion.

Therefore, it can be suggested that Trump saying there isn’t a time limit to denuclearization is a maneuver to free himself from the burden of expectations regarding denuclearization. If this is the case, then we will need to be watching for what happens after the election. Recently, CNN reported the White House as stating that Mike Pompeo’s third visit to North Korea went, “as badly as it could have gone”. If this report is true, then Trump may be faking a smile until after the midterms are finished, before making a drastic change in his approach to North Korea and potentially bringing another crisis to the Korean Peninsula.   

The next thing that needs to be considered is whether or not the U.S will try and put the entire issue to bed. North Korea’s denuclearization is not an easy problem to solve in the first place. Since North Korea is no longer making provocative actions, it could make more sense for the U.S to just leave the issue alone. Even though North Korea’s IBCMs are technically capable of reaching the U.S, it has been estimated that the warheads are unable to survive reentry into the atmosphere, thus failing to pose a real threat. If a real threat to the U.S is not present, then it makes no difference whether the North Korea problem is approached proactively or not. In this case, while North Korea lacks the capability to attack the U.S, it still has the capacity to become a nuclear power in Northeast Asia.

Need to wait until after the Midterm Elections to find out Trump’s plan

The Trump administration’s plans should become more clear in November after the midterm elections. We will need to wait and see whether Trump decides to change his policies, or continue down the road that he is on now. The biggest problem is that none of these policies look to be particularly beneficial for Korea.

It is time to distance ourselves from the excitement of the North-South Korea and North Korea-U.S summits that occurred in the first half of the year and start to look at the problem from a practical perspective. It seems too soon to make a hasty conclusion about the possibility of a great compromise being made to bring about an era of peace or if there will be another crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

* Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.