A recent State Department background briefing on North Korea contained some worrisome statements:

So nobody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach. In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearization of North Korea as a condition for all the other steps being – all the other steps being taken.

Making North Korean disarmament the condition for everything else is never going to fly with Pyongyang. For one thing, it is the very offer that North Korea just shot down at Hanoi, and for another it would require them to have extraordinary confidence in the Trump administration to follow through on its end of the deal. North Korean officials have previously stated that the U.S. and North Korea do not yet have enough trust built up to make such an exchange, and the administration has already shown with reneging on the JCPOA that it can’t be trusted to honor agreements that were already made. The administration position is that North Korea must surrender everything first and hope for the best, and North Korea is not nearly desperate enough to consider such a lopsided proposal. The hardening of the administration position tells us that they completely misunderstand why the Hanoi summit failed, and it also tells us that the hard-liners have definitely won the internal debate over the direction that North Korea policy should take. Whatever flexibility or lowering of expectations that they were willing to entertain before now has vanished.

The briefing was with an official who was pretty obviously special envoy Steve Biegun, and Biegun’s statements were so hard-line and unreasonable that they might as well have been uttered by Bolton. This doesn’t just mean maximalist demands on disarmament, but it also means absolute rigidity with respect to sanctions relief:

QUESTION: Is the State Department currently considering giving exemptions to inter-Korean economic projects?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Yeah, I got it. No.

South Korea has made some genuine progress in improving relations with North Korea, but unless it can proceed with planned economic cooperation its hands will be tied and its engagement policy will lose steam. U.S. inflexibility on granting exemptions for these projects will do damage to inter-Korean rapprochement while gaining the U.S. nothing on any other front. The administration is simultaneously undermining an ally that wants better relations with its neighbor and guaranteeing that the U.S. can’t make any progress in negotiations with the DPRK. Having failed at Hanoi, the administration is doing what all it can to repeat the mistakes that led to that failure.

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