The Fate of Trump’s Korean Gambit

This week brings the moment of truth for the controversial diplomatic warming between the US and North Korea. US President Donald Trump and North Korean Premier Kim Jong-un will meet on Feb. 27-28 in Hanoi, Vietnam, for their second summit. While the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization will dominate the meeting, most observers hold little hope for anything of significance emerging. In a replay of their Singapore summit in June, the widely held perception is that North Korea is simply exploiting a naive US president by holding out the prospect of disarmament in exchange for valuable diplomatic concessions, with no true intention of following through. This conventional wisdom is wrong. With their personal reputations at stake, the leaders of both the US and North Korea recognize that a failure to produce something substantive in Hanoi will not only put an end to this nascent diplomacy, but it will also have negative political ramifications in their respective capitals as well. A surprise agreement that shows genuine progress for both sides is the likely outcome.

President Trump’s North Korean gambit has come under attack from across the political spectrum — even from within his own administration. Most recently, Trump’s nominee for director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, testified before Congress that the US intelligence community assessed “that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions.” The reason for this, Coats said, was that “North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival.” Coats, whose assessments were echoed by those of his subordinates at the same briefing, stated that Kim Jong-un’s pledge to pursue the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” was no more than “a formulation linked to past demands that include an end to US military deployments and exercises involving advanced US capabilities.”

Coats’ presentation was seized upon by Trump’s numerous critics as an example of how unrealistic and dangerous this outreach with North Korea is for the US and its allies. However, the testimony of Coats and his intelligence chiefs seemed detached from the significance of the US-North Korean d├ętente that emerged from the June summit in Singapore. Its success goes beyond the reality that no tests of nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles have occurred since before the first summit. Of equal importance is the fact that Trump and Kim Jung-un are engaged in exactly the kind of personal diplomacy that historically produces significant results. Good examples are: Nixon-Mao, Reagan-Gorbachev and Clinton-Rabin/Arafat. Coats and his colleagues offer no new evidence and analysis of North Korea’s intentions but rather echo past assessments without considering the present reality. They are falling into the same analytical trap that befell the US in the lead-up to the Iraq War — failing to even consider the possibility that the other side might act in a way that differs with long-held expectations.

The key to any formal denuclearization program is a system of compliance verification, inclusive of on-site inspections, that provides enough confidence that any finalized agreement is implemented faithfully. On-site inspections are the foundation of modern arms control. To succeed as a verification tool, however, inspections must be directed by a mandate defining the scope and scale of the disarmament being undertaken, inclusive of a comprehensive list of proscribed and/or limited items and activities, and their means of accounting, disposition and monitoring. Also required is a legal framework for the conduct of such inspections, in the form of a formal treaty granting inspectors certain rights, privileges and immunities, or a United Nations Security Council resolution providing the same. Negotiating such an agreement is a gargantuan task requiring extensive preparation by legal, technical and scientific specialists. It would also probably bring in other actors such as South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), adding further complexity.

Neither the US nor North Korea seems prepared to move forward aggressively in negotiating and implementing a comprehensive denuclearization agreement at this time. President Trump says he is in no rush to finalize such an agreement, preferring to build upon the foundation of regional stability that has resulted from the good relationship developing between himself and Kim Jong-un. But that is not enough. Trump’s North Korean gambit will have a difficult time weathering a second summit that does not advance the issue of denuclearization. While a shroud of secrecy hangs over the agenda the two leaders will be working from, press reports indicate that they may seek to finalize a peace agreement ending the state of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, as well as sign an additional agreement allowing for the exchange of diplomatic representation at a level below that of an embassy. While these measures would be significant, they would rightly be seen by critics as addressing North Korean desires while doing nothing substantive for the issue of denuclearization. A summit that produces that result would be widely interpreted as a failure for President Trump.

North Korea’s Next Move

Kim Jong-un is as much aware of this downside risk as is Donald Trump. While US actions in the developing relationship with North Korea often appear haphazard, North Korea is following a game plan that was locked in place early last year, when the decision was made to initiate the “Olympic Diplomacy” to break the impasse with the West. This decision was part of a plan long in the making inside North Korea that involved a reshuffling political leadership, purging hard-liners opposed to outreach and elevating its supporters. The latter includes Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, and North Korea’s former intelligence chief, Kim Yong-chol. Observers noted that during the first US-North Korean summit, in Singapore, Kim Jong-un appeared well briefed on both US policy and the personality of the president. There is no reason to doubt that this same level of preparation continues.

Kim Jong-un has made it a point to exploit President Trump’s proclivity for personal relationships, frequently communicating directly via personal letters. Kim knows only too well the level of opposition that exists within the US to any Trump-led rapprochement with North Korea and is also cognizant of the difficult domestic political position in which the president finds himself in the aftermath of the Democrats taking control over the House of Representatives. North Korea’s success is now directly linked to the political fortunes of Donald Trump. While neither side is prepared to finalize a denuclearization agreement, Kim will need to make some significant gesture in that direction to avoid a Trump setback. North Korea has already undertaken unilateral destruction of nuclear and ballistic missile test facilities, and one can expect that Kim will put additional facilities on the chopping block. Additionally, North Korea could also declare certain aspects of its nuclear program, including the number of weapons it possesses and kinds of facilities it maintains, as a precursor to more in-depth negotiations on actual denuclearization.

President Trump desperately needs a real diplomatic victory from this second summit to burnish his political credentials at home. Without this, there will likely not be a third US-North Korean summit, an outcome that would be disastrous for Kim Jong-un, who has staked his legacy on the outcome of this diplomatic outreach to the US. The summit in Vietnam is as important to Kim as it is to Trump. With North Korea in the driver’s seat, one should expect the US to deliver what Kim Jong-un wants — a peace treaty and an exchange of diplomats — while Kim in turn gives Trump something substantive on the denuclearization front that Trump can turn to his political advantage at home.

This second US-North Korean Summit is not the endgame in terms of relations between these two countries, but if it fails there will be no endgame. The Trump gambit will be finished. For Kim Jong-un, there would also be little or no likelihood that a future US administration would expend the political capital in trying to restart it. For these reasons, something substantive on denuclearization should come out of the Vietnam summit.

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