President Donald Trumpâ€™s purported breakthrough in relations with North Korea seems to have failed. Far from dismantling his countryâ€™s nuclear program, Kim Jong Un is still expanding his arsenal. Heâ€™s aiming to undermine international unity over sanctions, planning summits this month with leaders from China and South Korea.
And the U.S. recently canceled a visit to North Korea by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying the trip would be a waste of time.
None of this is very surprising. At the same time, it doesnâ€™t mean that the cause is hopeless. Despite these setbacks, the U.S. and its allies should stay engaged.
Disappointment was to be expected because Kim conceded next to nothing in his summit with Trump, pledging only to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula - a formula that implies the removal of U.S. forces - and only after striking a comprehensive peace agreement with Washington. Any such outcome is years away, and Kim will hope in the meantime to gain acceptance of North Korea as an unofficial nuclear power.
Trump has only himself to blame for gaining no concrete concessions from Pyongyang, then declaring one of the worldâ€™s most devilish geopolitical problems solved.
Nonetheless, Kim canâ€™t revert to the pre-summit status quo. State media have celebrated the recent contacts and Kimâ€™s promise that theyâ€™ll promote trade and development.
The young autocrat has staked his legitimacy on improving his countryâ€™s dire living standards. Estimates suggest that nearly three-quarters of North Koreans now derive some of their income from markets of one kind or another. A taste of economic liberty is apt to create an appetite for more. North Koreaâ€™s command-and-control model is under internal assault.
Also, both sides know what it would take to restart negotiations. The U.S. will have to join South Korea in declaring that the Korean War, which never formally ceased, is over. And North Korea will at a minimum have to provide an inventory of its nuclear and missile programs, and agree to open them to inspections.
For this to work, Trump will have to convince Kim that North Korea cannot avoid coming to terms with the U.S. - which means, in turn, closer U.S. coordination with China and, especially, South Korea.
This should be possible, despite suggestions from Trump that Beijing is encouraging the Northâ€™s recalcitrance. Chinaâ€™s leaders donâ€™t want to flout United Nations sanctions openly; their interest is in seeing talks progress to the point where restrictions are officially lifted.
A similar logic holds true for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose efforts have been indispensable in reducing tensions on the peninsula.
He clearly wants to move toward reconciliation with the North faster than the U.S. does - but no lasting stability will be achieved if South Korea minimizes U.S. security concerns or tries to strike a separate peace. Moon should be using any influence heâ€™s acquired to persuade Kim of the need for clear steps toward denuclearization.
The more daylight the South Korean president allows between Seoul and Washington, the harder it will be to achieve his own objectives.
The same goes, just as before, for the U.S.: To engage effectively with North Korea, the Trump administration must act patiently, methodically, and in concert with others.