(Latest opinion in the South China Morning Post 4/27/19)
US President Donald Trump had been uncharacteristically quiet since his failed meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. That silence ended with a confused tweet at the end of last week overturning some unannounced, but apparently new, sanctions his Treasury Department was about to impose on Kim’s government.
The Treasury had announced new sanctions for several Chinese firms helping North Korea smuggle oil and coal, among other illicit activity. The White House assured us that reversing sanctions no one knew about was an olive branch because Trump still “likes” Kim.
While that’s a downgrade from the effusive love Trump professed earlier, it seems that he still wants to keep the door open for a possible resumption of talks.
Kim had also showed some restraint, at least at first. The official state newspaper, Rodung Sinmun, kept their rhetoric on simmer after the summit, blaming National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the failure, rather than Trump himself.
But there’s not much left to talk about on denuclearisation. If the goodwill expressed by both sides is going to lead anywhere, there needs to be something new, like normalising relations between the US and North Korea.
Trump claimed in last weeks’s State of the Union address that if it weren’t for him, the U.S. would be at war right now with North Korea. His self-praise for merely engaging the North telegraphed an eagerness for a deal that will be hard to justify should talks not deliver full and irreversible North Korean denuclearization.
Many now argue that North Korea will never give up their weapons and the U.S. should just accept that and move on, but the stakes are high for U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, the most susceptible to a North Korean provocation. If North Korea keeps its nuclear capability, Japan, a U.S. treaty ally, will certainly move to counter that threat, triggering a regional arms race.
There’s been precious little indication that Kim is willing to give up anything for another meeting with the U.S. President, a completely predictable outcome when Trump showed so much eagerness to meet in Singapore without a major breakthrough in talks.
A presidential meeting should only come after an agreement has been reached, not the other way around.
During the lapse in diplomacy since last summer’s Singapore summit, North Korea has been expanding its weapons program, not decreasing it. Recent reports and commercial satellite imagery show that the DPRK not only continued to build missiles, but there have far more weapon sites than previously disclosed.
While North Korea has not overtly tested a missile or engine system since talks began, even the most novice global affairs observer knows delays are not concessions. Kim can fire up a test whenever and wherever he wants. Blowing up wooden sheds and exploding a mountain entrance were, at best, window dressing.
Trump has been far more adept in his trade negotiations with China and refused to meet with Xi Jinping until more details are ironed out. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are headed to China soon.
By refusing to say he’ll meet with Xi until he finds out what happens in the latest round of negotiations he maintains his advantage. A presidential meeting should only come after an agreement has been reached, not the other way around.
Which begs the question, why did Trump commit to meeting Kim before his Special Envoy, Stephen Biegun, finished negotiating any of the numerous and contentious details? After Biegun returned from Pyongyang Trump officially announced his Feb. 27-28 visit to Hanoi, but preparations were already underway for that visit. One can only surmise that Kim understood he had the advantage.
Up for grabs are a litany of economic, political, and military gives including the minimal lifting of some U.S. sanctions, a declaration to formally end the Korea conflict, establishing an interest section or Embassy in Pyongyang, and at the extreme, a reduction in U.S. troops and/or weapons systems on the peninsula.
Additionally Trump has already said he wants a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, but his vanity should not drive what may amount to a bad deal.
For any of these U.S. concessions, Trump must insist on full, verifiable denuclearization. Otherwise the bait-and-switch game will just go on while North Korea continues to build its arsenal. Transparency has always been the problem, and so far Kim has shown no more propensity to open his reclusive nation than his father or grandfather before him.
That may change if Kim is more interested in massive personal wealth and global recognition that followed Chinese and Vietnamese reform and opening. If so, Trump must press hard on eliminating the North’s ability to make and weaponize fissile material.
The worst thing that could happen in a real estate deal gone bad is bankruptcy. But an impulsive approach to high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea could mean risking regional and U.S. national security.