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The U.S. Is ‘Once Again Playing Catch-Up’ with North Korea

WASHINGTON—“Inside North Korea’s Dynasty,” a four-segment series from National Geographic documentary films that’s airing this month, may well contribute to doubts about a deal, any deal, with North Korea. Those have been growing by the day.

North Korea postponed key nuclear talks with the United States this week. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned Thursday, “There’s no time to stall or no time to delay or try and get past not going through with what was agreed in Singapore,” meaning the June summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump after which Trump erroneously declared the North Korea nuclear problem “largely solved.”

The National Geographic series presents archival footage, including scenes of starvation, executions, unbridled power and repression, that are likely to dispel the illusions of even diehard pro-Northers that Kim might really be a nice guy at heart—a congenial successor to his dictatorial father, the late Kim Jong Il, and the dynasty founder Kim Il Sung. Interspersed are commentaries by veteran journalists who have visited North Korea many times, notably Mike Chinoy, formerly of CNN, and Jean Lee, formerly Associated Press. Neither is exactly hardline. If anything, they’ve appeared over the years all for reconciliation, as they sought to figure out what in the hell’s going on up there.

Their extensive backgrounds add intense credibility to portrayals of extraordinary constraints imposed on them as journalists, of suffering that they witnessed or heard about, of the grandiosity and power-mongering of all three of the Kims. Oh, and there’s Dennis Rodman singing “Happy Birthday” to Kim, who tells him he wants to visit Madison Square Garden.

They and assorted experts, and historical figures from news clips and newsreels, plus hard-to-get footage of everyday cruelty and hardships dug up by producers Mark Raphael and David Glover, give an unvarnished picture that won’t please apologists for the current ruler or his forebears—or convince wishful thinkers that real peace is at hand.

This epic documentary, colorful, quoteful, insightful, should definitely rekindle interest among a TV-watching public that may have forgotten about North Korea amid ongoing massacres, sporadic violence and political yakking at home. The timing is most opportune.

Ignored during campaigning for the midterm elections, North Korea is returning like a ghost from the past. If Trump still fantasizes about his friend in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un, ever giving up his nukes, the signs are unmistakable that the vaunted peace process is winding down. The U.S. and North Korea have reached an impasse.

That much was clear, if it wasn’t already, when North Korea abruptly cancelled plans for Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party, of which Kim Jong Un of course is chairman, to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York. Trump, in his long press conference as results came in from the midterm elections, seemed confident he and Kim Jong Un, with whom he once professed to have fallen “in love,” would hold a second summit as early as January. Cancellation of Pompeo’s meeting with Kim Y.C., at which the two would lay plans for their bosses’ get-together, was not a good sign.

In fact, while North Korea clings to its nuclear warheads and the U.S. sticks to “complete denuclearization,” Trump is adopting a bargaining position that is sure to upset the North Koreans. Just as he’s done consistently since that first summit with  Kim in Singapore in June, Trump said sanctions on North Korea would remain in place until Kim seriously takes steps to get rid of both his nukes and the long-range missiles needed to fire them at distant targets, including the U.S.

“Ignored during campaigning for the midterm elections, North Korea is returning like a ghost from the past.”

Certainly, he said in his press conference, “I would love to take the sanctions off, but they have to be responsible, too.” As he might have said in any business negotiations, he added, “It’s a two-way street,” meaning that he did not believe North Korea had yet made significant concessions warranting relief from sanctions.

Trump is playing a waiting game, seeing what the North will do in terms of making good on “denuclearization” as promised in Singapore. “We’re not in any rush at all,” he said, adopting the position that he would be glad to wait a long time for Kim finally to show signs of a real deal on his nukes. “There’s no rush whatsoever.”

To which Victor Cha, who served on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush presidency and now is a professor at Georgetown, advised sardonically, “Not to worry, because Trump says we have plenty of time.”

North Korea, however, is not yielding to pressure. The North’s party newspaper Rodong Sinmun has said the North will resume making and testing nukes and missiles if the U.S. delays on giving up sanctions imposed by both the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council after its nuclear and long-range missile tests, most recently last year. No, the commentaries have not attacked Trump personally—but they do stress the punishment for refusal to meet North Korea’s demands.

Trump may be able to spend more time dealing with North Korea after weeks of hard campaigning for Republican candidates in which the main issues were affordable health care and “invasion” of the U.S. by thousands of desperate, hungry people trudging up to the U.S. southern border from crime-and-violence-ridden Central American countries.

The prognosis on North Korea, however, is not good.

“It will be difficult to break the current logjam unless one side or the other caves,” said Evans Revere, a former senior diplomat in Seoul. The U.S. and North Korea, he said, “are at odds on a range of crucial issues, including over the very definition of denuclearization.”

In this atmosphere, it’s far from clear how Trump will cope with North Korea. He may see another deal with Kim as a welcome distraction from problems with the new Congress even if he has to make concessions. Or he may prefer not to deal with North Korea at all, to put off the problem, knowing Kim may not want a second summit unless the U.S. agrees not only on sanctions but on a “peace declaration” that North Korea craves in place of the armistice that ended the Korean War.

Seoul views the impasse with considerable alarm. Nobody believes that cancellation of Pompeo’s meeting with Kim Yong Chol was just a matter of timing.

“South Korean experts are generally in consensus (along with their US counterparts) that the real reason for the postponement is likely the two sides’ failure to reach any agreement prior to the talks,” said Korea Exposé, a website in Seoul. As Choi Kang at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, quoted by Korea Exposé, explained, “North Korea appears to have judged that there is not much use in meeting and talking since common ground has yet to be found.”

The fear in Seoul is that Kim Jong Un might also conclude there’s no point going there for a summit with President Moon Jae-in until Moon persuades Trump to relax on sanctions and sign an end-of-war declaration. Moon has been calling for both the peace declaration and relaxation of sanctions but failed to win support in meetings with leaders of U.S. allies during a recent swing through Europe.

Kim “is unlikely to show up in Seoul any time soon,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University. Before he goes there, said Lee, he’ll be meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping, both of whom he’s counting on for support in getting rid of sanctions and standing up to the U.S.

So doing, said Lee, Kim will be “solidifying his new image as a peace-seeking reformer unjustly squeezed by a petulant U.S.” while “the U.S. is once again playing catch-up.”