Pompeo visits Pyongyang

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met with North Korean President Kim Jong-Un. This visit came amidst a flurry of diplomatic activity leading up to President Trump’s meeting with the North Korean leader, which is expected to take place later this month.

Background

The relationship between the US and North Korea has always been fractious. During the war between North and South Korea in 1950, US forces successfully intervened on behalf of South Korea. To this day, there are 28,500 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in South Korea as part of United States Forces Korea (USFK). Read more on the history of the peninsula here.

The North Korean nuclear program has been a source of concern for the US and the international community for decades. North Korea has remained an isolated nation and its nuclear program has especially been a concern for the international community. In 2017, North Korea launched 23 missiles over the course of 16 tests. In November, North Korea tested its most potent missile yet. The Hwasong-15 missile reached an unprecedented height of almost 4,500 kilometres (2,800 miles).

US President Trump has taken an aggressive stance while countering North Korea. Both Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump were locked in an extended war of words in 2017. Trump said that North Korea “will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen.” North Korea responded by announcing that plans were underway for it to strike Guam, a US territory.

However, since the beginning of 2018, global tensions with the isolated state began to ease. Pyongyang has indicated that it is willing to re-establish diplomatic ties with the outside world, beginning with the Pyeongchang Olympics, which were hailed as the “Peace Olympics”. In April, US officials confirmed that then-CIA director Mike Pompeo had visited Kim Jong-Un in a top-secret meeting over Easter. On April 27th, North and South Korean leaders Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In held a historic summit, the first in over a decade. The two nations announced that they had agreed to end the 60-year Korean War and signed the Panmunjom Declaration which agreed to denuclearise North Korea. Read more on the meeting here.

Analysis

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with President Kim Jong-Un again on May 9th. “At this very moment, secretary Pompeo is on his way to North Korea in preparation for my upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un,” Trump said.  The comments came moments after he declared that the U.S. will be withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.

Pompeo secured the release of three American citizens detained in North Korea. “I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set,” President Trump tweeted. These detainees included Korean-American missionary Kim Dong-chul, and Kim Sang-duk and Kim Hak-song, teachers at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. The move has been viewed as a gesture of goodwill ahead of the Trump-Kim summit.

Kim Jong-Un also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Dalian on May 8th. This was the second meeting between the two leaders in less than two months. According to Chinese media outlet Xinhua, the two leaders “had an all-round and in-depth exchange of views on China-DPRK relations and major issues of common concern.” Kim reportedly told Xi that he hoped denuclearisation would be “phased and synchronised.”

Trump and Xi discussed the summit later the same day, according to a White House statement, which noted that the two nations “agreed on the importance of continued implementation of sanctions on North Korea until it permanently dismantles its nuclear and missile programs.”

China, Japan, and South Korean leaders also held high level talks this week, emphasising on improving cultural and economic collaboration between the three nations. They also reiterated their support for the denuclearisation of North Korea. “We must take the recent momentum towards denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula and towards peace and security in Northeast Asia, and, cooperating even further with international society, make sure this is linked to concrete action by North Korea,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the press after the meeting.

Assessment

Our assessment is that Mike Pompeo’s recent visit may be intended to reassure Pyongyang after the US chose to scrap the Iran nuclear deal. Additionally, this visit may increase Beijing’s anxiety over shifting geopolitics in the region. Should North Korea ally itself with the United States, it could increase US presence in the region, and China could lose its strategic advantage in the South China Sea. We believe that the recent meeting between Kim and Xi Jinping was meant to emphasise China’s key role in the Korean Peninsula. As stated previously, Pyongyang is in pursuit of being recognised as a responsible stakeholder in the comity of nations. Such a possibility would evolve if they are able to successfully engage the United States.