by Robert E. Hunter
The sudden announcement that President Donald Trump will meet with Chairman Kim Jong-un—at least so it seems—has taken the world by surprise. Diplomats and commentators alike are hurrying to catch up. Already, Trump’s supporters have claimed that US pressure on North Korea is bringing it to the bargaining table. (An added benefit for him is that he can now use this “success” to counter the drumfire of attacks surrounding the “Russia issue.”) Of course, Kim can make a similar claim: that the DPRK’s soon-to-be direct nuclear threat to the US homeland, “in a matter of months” according to the CIA director, has led Washington to shift its position, at least on implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the Kim regime. That North Korean achievement would be underscored for the whole world if the two leaders find themselves in the same room.
Speculation about how this diplomatic development came about will continue apace. More important is to understand what recent events imply and not just for relations between North Korea and the United States. They will affect the entire congeries of power and political relationships throughout East Asia, notably relations between the two Korean states as well as those between China and Japan. Equally important is the need for America to start analyzing the implications of what has happened so far and could happen down the road, making basic strategic assessments, and crafting positions for Trump to deploy with Kim when they meet.
Viewed from outside, the diplomatic initiatives have been set in motion by Kim on the one hand and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in on the other. The latter has emerged as the conduit for messages from Pyongyang, in terms both of content and interpretation. So far opaque to outsiders is the degree to which the United States was active behind the scenes in President Moon’s activities. Certainly there has been a lot of diplomatic interaction. Yet is Moon acting primarily on his own in pursuit of South Korea’s interests, first and foremost to lessen the military threat posed by North Korea, but also looking toward the possibility of normalized relations, and, at some point, the reunification of the two Koreas? Or is he primarily playing the role of American agent, as Pakistan did in 1971 in setting up initial contacts between the United States and the People’s Republic of China? The answers to these questions will have a major impact on what now happens.
Unless the basic spadework in shaping an emerging US-DPRK detente has already been done in secret—which is possible but unlikely—the US government will now be challenged in a few short weeks to decide what it really needs from a potentially changed relationship with Pyongyang, as opposed to what it wants but is unlikely to get, notably the complete denuclearization of North Korea. It must also calculate the interests of other parties, beginning with its Northeast Asian allies and China, and how they will try to maximize benefits for themselves. This will be a tall order for the Trump administration, which is still not fully staffed at the State Department.
Nor have the State Department, Pentagon, and National Security Council demonstrated a capacity for systematic strategic analysis and policy planning for just about any part of the world. (In this, the current administration is not that far behind its two immediate predecessors.) First-class experts do exist on the Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and other less important players. Far from clear, however, is whether a critical mass of expertise is present in the government or if the administration is prepared to bring in the capacities it now needs. No president—not even Richard Nixon on China—can engage in direct diplomacy that will protect and advance US (and allies’) interests without a massive amount of high-quality, systematic effort by subordinates. The same is true of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has shown in other parts of the world that he tends to operate without adequate staff and substantive support.
In short, both US strategic thinking and first-class diplomacy need to be brought back into their own, where they have tended to languish for too much of the post-Cold War period (except episodically as in President Obama’s success in negotiating limits on Iran’s nuclear program).
The Long Road Ahead
Unless both Trump and Kim are prepared to roll the dice and reach some grand bargain, like Napoleon and Russian Czar Alexander I on a raft in the River Neman in 1807, the way ahead will be long and difficult even if both sides agree early on that they want to strike a deal. Indeed, Kim may simply be seeking to offer the United States the appearance of a lessened direct threat to the US homeland, while he “slow rolls” diplomacy into the indefinite future. Sixty-eight years of conflict and densely structured military confrontation cannot be undone in a trice. Both sides will be judging one another’s positions with deep skepticism at every step along the way. If mutual trust does at some point develop, it will be at the far end of negotiations and deliberations, not something that suddenly emerges, as appeared to happen when Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986.
One major lure held out by Kim, through Moon, is that he is prepared to consider the denuclearization of North Korea. Well, maybe, but this is Kim’s hole card, not lightly (if at all) to be traded away, as much as neighboring China might like him to do so. Although the United States has enough experience not to trust anything that North Korea agrees to that the US can’t observe and enforce directly, so Kim has only to look at Libya, Iraq, and Iran to distrust America’s word. His ultimate goal is regime survival. Even if the United States were prepared to guarantee it, how could it convince Kim, after decades in which the opposite has been a core US policy?
As the process unfolds—if, indeed, it does—the US will need to calibrate its interests and ambitions with those of South Korea, which are not necessarily identical. If Kim were somehow to reassure Seoul that the DPRK will dismantle its threatening military posture, South Korea’s role as a major element of the growing US containment strategy against China could weaken. This could happen despite Moon’s report that Kim is not asking the US to cancel impending joint military exercises with South Korea, which are a visible sign of continuing US-South Korean military engagement.
For the United States, of course, the most important objective is to keep North Korea from reaching the point in its nuclear weapons developments where it can hold the US homeland hostage. Until now, there has been no obvious alternative than some variant of mutual deterrence (perhaps to be supplemented or supplanted at an indeterminate time in the future by effective US ballistic missile defenses). But no US administration could accept just North Korean promises or the word of a third party like China.
A standard for comparison is Iran. Unlike the North Korean nuclear weapons program, if Iran did get the bomb the United States would be unlikely to be threatened directly. Nevertheless, in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) governing the Iranian nuclear program, the United States deemed intrusive inspections to be essential. Yet even though these were agreed, there is still no guarantee that the US will continue to honor this landmark agreement, and US distrust of Iran has not lessened at all. How much more difficult it would be to accept that North Korea has denuclearized, in terms relevant to the United States and its allies. Already, some US tacticians, acting as though denuclearizing North Korea is just a technical exercise, are counting their chickens even before the eggs are laid, much less hatched, by considering the design of classic tasks like on-site inspections.
China and Beyond
Another big unknown is the economic and geopolitical role of China, in its neighborhood, in the Pacific region, and globally. In comparison, American preoccupation with Russia and the post-Islamic State Middle East, notably Iran, are costly distractions from the more crucial, China-centered business of America’s foreign policy demands for the foreseeable future.
Beyond seeking to prevent a direct nuclear threat to the US from the DPRK, next in importance is the possible broader impact of detente with North Korea and hence a lessening of the extent to which US allies in Northeast Asia need to shelter under its wings. If tensions created by Kim and company are reduced, there can be a loosening of the bonds of strategic engagement between the United States and at least some of its regional allies. Although blunting the North Korean nuclear threat would be a major achievement for the United States, the net strategic winner is likely to be China, which has been moving toward primacy in the Far East for several years.
Although very much speculative, these reflections cover a large part of the agenda now facing the United States. But it’s not clear that Washington is up to the task of dealing effectively with the challenge, judging by U.S. performance in so many parts of the world, beginning well before President Trump’s erratic behavior in international affairs.
The president is for the first time being tested big-time in the outside world. He and his administration have a lot of difficult work to get done in a very few weeks. The haphazard approach that has prevailed over the past year will simply not do.