Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
At first, President Donald Trump’s bold leap into a summit and negotiations with Kim Jong Un seemed the best opportunity for deescalating nuclear confrontation with North Korea. Why not give peace a chance? Nothing else has worked so far.
The combination of escalating military threats, stiff economic sanctions and a united front among allies and China, as well as the deft and disciplined efforts of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to lower tensions with Pyongyang, have brought us, finally, to negotiations.
The challenge now is not to blow it all with unrealistic expectations that the North will give up the weapons it sees as the only guarantee of regime survival. Yet as the week rolled on, the risk of blowing it all rose sharply as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo. Pompeo has publicly crossed Pyongyang’s red line by saying last July that “I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime” from the North Korean people.
Talk of denuclearization in the same breath as regime change is certainly a non-starter for Kim, who is keenly aware that even after former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program, he was still overthrown. Pompeo has also been one of the chief critics of the Iran nuclear accord, surely a better deal than Trump can get from North Korea, which already has a standing arsenal. By week’s end, a train wreck ahead seemed more likely than not.
This week, The WorldPost examines the prospects and pitfalls of the upcoming Trump-Kim summit and ensuing negotiations.
“I have a high degree of skepticism that North Korea will really negotiate away the nuclear arsenal it now has, even though South Korean officials have claimed Pyongyang is open to it,” writes former U.S. defense secretary William J. Perry, who is one of the few senior American officials to negotiate directly with the North Koreans. Even if a path to denuclearization were actually agreed, he continues, “it would be a fundamental error to believe that we can reliably verify a treaty by which North Korea agrees to dismantle all of its nuclear weapons and not build more.”
Yet, “just because we can’t verify a denuclearization agreement doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have any agreement,” Perry argues. “Given that North Korea has a nuclear arsenal, we must contain and deter that arsenal. We can strengthen our containment by reaching an agreement with North Korea on a testing ban and a ban on any transfer of nuclear technology or components. Such an agreement would not be as desirable as denuclearization, but it can be negotiated and, once negotiated, it can be verified.”
Perry concludes: “Useful results can be obtained from negotiations but not the results being advertised. My fear is that the negotiations will be a failure because we will enter into them with unrealistic expectations. Even so, I believe that a deal can be had that will significantly improve our security. We should not let the best be the enemy of the good.”
Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis has few doubts that the North Koreans are playing an inexperienced American president. Lewis recalls a series of North Korean propaganda films titled “The Country I Saw,” which portray an American president visiting Pyongyang in respectful acknowledgment of a country with a nuclear status that could not be ignored. “So when Trump agreed to a summit,” writes Lewis, “he unwittingly cast himself in what may well be another installment of the propaganda series, one in which North Korea’s testing of both thermonuclear weapons and missiles that can strike the U.S. has compelled an American president to come to Kim Jong Un and recognize North Korea as a nuclear-armed power.”
Lewis rightly worries what will happen when Trump realizes that North Korea is not about to denuclearize. “What if Trump, having deluded himself into thinking he’s going to pick up Kim Jong Un’s bombs, suddenly decides that he’s been double-crossed?” he asks. “He could use the summit outcome to discredit diplomacy and open the pathway toward war. We have already seen U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham threaten Kim that if he were to ‘try to play him … it will be the end of you — and your regime.’ John Bolton, the architect of the collapse of the 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea, has said the visit will fail, show that diplomacy is hopeless and allow us to move to using military might. And the president himself has warned of the ‘ominous alternative’ if his outreach should fail.”
Writing from Seoul, President Moon’s former special envoy to the Trump administration, Hong Seok-Hyun, offers a novel approach as an alternative to this dark scenario — leveraging North Korea’s wariness of Chinese dominance by presenting the U.S. as a balancer in the region.
“During the Korean War, China helped North Korea fight against the U.S. Yet Kim Il Sung told his son to be wary of China,” Hong says. “Those words seem to have been handed down to Kim Il Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, who has not visited China since he came to power in 2011. He has not invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pyongyang, and last year, he didn’t even meet with a visiting special envoy who was carrying a letter from Xi.”
During the Cold War, Hong explains, “North Korea conducted equidistant diplomacy with China and the Soviet Union, but with the fall of the Soviet Union, it became economically dependent on China.”
Hong, who is also a former South Korean ambassador to the U.S., advises the American president to “discern North Korea’s deeply rooted anti-China sentiment. Trump should use his supposedly forthcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un as a golden opportunity to maintain U.S. influence in Northeast Asia. It’s no secret that Kim is already an avid NBA fan. Trump should embrace Kim and make him pro-American.”
Whether this imaginative approach — rooted in Korea’s historic strategy of fending off its dominant neighboring powers of China and Japan by aligning with distant powers — is any more realistic than the U.S. expectation of denuclearization, all agree the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“There is no room for Trump or Kim to fail in the upcoming summit,” Hong concludes. “Success is not a choice but a necessity. If the talks fail, the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia could regress into a situation much more precarious than before.”