by Mitchell Plitnick
The drama around North Korea and Donald Trump took another bizarre twist last week, with the sudden announcement that Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would meet sometime before May. Reaction was as swift as it was diverse. The confusion deepened when the White House quickly walked back from its commitment, reassuring critics that there would be preconditions beyond those to which North Korea had already committed. Spokespeople later walked back the walkback.
Once again the Trump administration seems to be trying to extricate the country and the president from a situation he impetuously created. It is impossible, with a stripped-down and inexperienced staff in both the White House and the State Department, for a summit between two leaders to be ready in less than two months. That’s especially true with these two leaders.
This latest comic opera, however, allows us to take a snapshot of what’s wrong with the Trump administration’s entire approach to foreign policy and the U.S. approach to North Korea more broadly.
The Pros and Cons of the Proposed Meeting
It was not so long ago that Kim and Trump were trading childish insults, ramping up the rhetoric, and raising fears of a confrontation. Since then, tensions have mostly simmered, moving away from the most dangerous rhetoric. But until recently Trump had repeatedly dismissed talking with Kim, opting instead for aggressive posturing and increasing sanctions. Given that a new flare-up is possible at any moment, a meeting between the two leaders is a much better option.
But as is so often the case, Trump’s ignorance of diplomatic process and his refusal to listen to anyone but himself limits the good and increases the potential pitfalls of such a summit. From all indications, Trump agreed to this meeting in the spur of the moment, without consulting anyone. That’s a problem.
Meetings between adversarial leaders generally require months of talks by lower-level diplomats to set up a basic framework. The failure of such talks generally sets back diplomatic efforts and increases the risk of confrontation. And such an outcome is far more likely when there is no clear agenda. In this case, it’s not clear that Trump even has an idea of what a desirable, and realistic, outcome might be.
Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011-2017, wrote this week:
The White House is unable to hide its contempt for experienced public servants. But the base of knowledge of these servants—not just of technical details, but of the political and psychological interests of Kim Jong Un—is the foundation necessary for successful negotiations, no matter how good a deal-maker the president believes himself to be. This isn’t a reality show: The president will need to be prepared with all the facts and understand the history between our nations if he is to make progress toward brokering an agreement with North Korea.
Trump also needs to have a clear goal at such a meeting. It will be trouble if he believes that he can sit down and quickly reach a deal on North Korean denuclearization. Trump will likely hit a wall, and given his volatile personality, move to a new level of belligerence.
Obviously it’s better for Trump to be talking across a table rather than taunting on Twitter or engaging in any sort of military action. But the chances of this ending well are astoundingly thin. If the meeting never happens, as seems possible, the United States, the world’s only superpower, has reinforced an already frighteningly strong reputation for dissembling and unreliability. If it does happen, and Trump leaves dissatisfied, which is at least a very strong possibility, he is very likely to ramp up the Twitter insults.
A Trump-Kim meeting could end with some sort of framework to move forward. That’s really a low bar for a head-of-state meeting. That’s why countries have professional diplomats. Yet even that outcome seems a very remote possibility. In the Trump era, though, that qualifies as hopeful.
North Korea Will Not Denuclearize Any Time Soon
Although talking is a remedy to potential violence, Trump’s impetuosity in agreeing to talks gave Kim Jong-un a big victory. Because Iran had nothing to gain from fruitless meetings with the United States, just agreeing to talk was worthless as a bargaining chip. Kim has never been accepted by the international community. Even agreeing to this meeting gives him a legitimacy he craves deeply. This meeting was something that needed to be sold, not given.
This is where the North Korean situation differs from that of Iran, though both disputes center around nuclear weapons.
Iran was a country that, at worst, was moving haltingly toward a nuclear weapon. Moreover, Iran’s actual acquisition of a weapon, while supported by some of its most conservative quarters, was highly controversial domestically. The Iranian theocracy could excuse and explain much of what it had done to the people, but actually developing a nuclear weapon would have directly violated a fatwa against such weapons. Kim faces no such domestic issues.
More to the point, however, Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, much less one small enough to be mounted on a warhead. North Korea, by contrast, certainly has nuclear bombs, and missiles on which they can be mounted. They claim to have mastered the process by which they can make the bombs small enough to mount. Though some outside observers doubt this capability, the US reportedly concluded in August 2017 that North Korea could indeed miniaturize and mount their bombs. In any case, they have nuclear weapons and can certainly threaten South Korea with them, if nothing else.
Both North Korea and Iran surely understand the lesson of Libya. Whatever Muammar Qaddafi may have been, and he was certainly a horrifyingly brutal dictator, he gave up his nuclear weapons, was eventually ousted from power with large-scale US assistance, and was killed. Iran has a long and bitter history with the United States. But North Korea’s outlook is shaped by the near-total destruction of the country by international forces led by the United States in the Korean War.
Under Donald Trump, the United States has routinely violated its commitment under the nuclear deal to refrain from discouraging companies or other countries form doing business with Iran. Combined with North Korea’s history of blatant violations of agreements, there is far less trust here than there ever was with Iran during the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
So, North Korea will have a far higher bar for giving up their nuclear weapons than Iran did for its more modest nuclear ambitions. Specific peace treaties, international guarantees, military partnerships, and a great deal of economic support will all be required for North Korea to even consider giving up its nukes.
The threshold may be too high. In any case, the negotiations will need to involve the entire international community, including China and with South Korea playing a key role. When South Africa sacrificed its nuclear weapons, it reaped great benefits and, nearly three decades later, has had no reason to regret that decision. That is the counter-example to Libya. But realistically, Kim Jong-un is more likely to look at the world through the prism of Tripoli than Pretoria.
The only way forward is to recognize that denuclearization is a very long-term goal. Along the way, the international community can begin the long, difficult process of reducing North Korea’s isolation. A North Korea that is not threatened will either give up its nukes or not be a threat with them.
This path is much longer than the one with Iran. Negotiators cannot afford to be frustrated by the fact that North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons until it is much further along this path. For a president ignorant of history, current realities, and diplomatic processes, a president moreover who demands instant gratification, the prospects of engaging with North Korea over the long term are bleak.