Trump’s Gamble Hits Reality Check in North Korea Negotiations
Posted May 24, 2018 6:01 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump attempted a revolutionary approach to North Korea — a gamble that negotiating prowess and deal-making charm in a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Un could accomplish what no American president or diplomat had dared to attempt in the 65 years since an uneasy armistice settled over the Korean Peninsula.
It was a bold and innovative approach, and one worth trying, to take on the related goals of a peace treaty and eradicating the North’s now-substantial nuclear arsenal.
The fact that it fell on Thursday before getting out of the starting gate, though, underscored how little the two men understood about each other, or how their words and maximalist demands were resonating in Washington and Pyongyang.
Trump approached the North Korean leader as if he was a competing property developer haggling over a prized asset — and assumed that, in the end, Kim would be willing to give it all up for the promise of future prosperity. So he started with threats of “fire and fury,” then turned to surprise initiatives, then gratuitous flattery of one of the world’s more brutal dictators.
“He will be safe, he will be happy, his country will be rich,” Trump said of the North Korean leader Tuesday, as he met again with Moon Jae-in, the over-optimistic South Korean president whose national security adviser predicted, that same day, it was “99.9 percent” sure that the summit meeting in Singapore would go ahead.
But it was already becoming clear to Trump and his team that the techniques involved in negotiating real estate don’t translate easily into negotiations over nuclear weapons.
Kim needs money, investment and technology for sure. But more than that, he needs to convince North Korea’s elites that he has not traded away the only form of security in his sole control — the nuclear patrimony of his father and his grandfather.
“For them, ‘getting rich’ is a secondary consideration,” said William Perry, the former defense secretary and one of the last people to negotiate with the North over peace treaties, nuclear disarmament and missiles — in 1999, when he was sent out as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy. “If I learned anything dealing with them, it’s that their security is pre-eminent. They know we have the capability to defeat them, and they believe we have the intent to do so.”
“And the only way to address that,” Perry, now 90, said this week in Palo Alto, California, as the North Koreans were issuing their latest threats, “is with a step-by-step process, exactly the approach Trump said he did not want to take.”
Other complications prevented the talks from making it far enough to even discuss those issues. As the two leaders circled each other over what long-range goals they would agree to in Singapore, it became increasingly clear there were forces at work in both capitals that had a strong interest in failure.
The creators of North Korea’s nuclear and missile forces are the country’s true elite, celebrated as the heroes who keep America at bay. To lose their arsenal is to lose their status and influence.
When Trump sent one of his deputy national security advisers to Singapore a week ago for a prearranged meeting to work out summit logistics, the North Koreans stood him up. In the past week, they did not answer the phone, a senior administration official told reporters Thursday afternoon.
The North has its own list of complaints. After Trump accepted Kim’s offer to meet face-to-face, he replaced his national security adviser with John R. Bolton, who just a few months ago published an essay titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First,” an ode to pre-empting Pyongyang — no matter what it promised about the future. Once he ensconced himself in the West Wing, Bolton began talking publicly about the “the Libyan model” of turning over nuclear weapons, a reference to a deal he helped design in 2003 in which Moammar Gadhafi turned over a nascent nuclear program in return for exactly the kinds of economic lures Trump was talking about.
To the North Koreans, Bolton knew, the Libya example was shorthand for making a bad decision to unilaterally disarm. They have little doubt that if North Korean citizens rose to overthrow their government — as Libyan rebels did against Gadhafi in 2011 — Washington would be more than happy to help chase down the leadership.
None of this means the initiatives with North Korea are entirely dead. Trump carefully left open the door for Kim to “call me or write” if he decides to cease the threats of nuclear exchanges and wants to reschedule the summit. But Trump also on Thursday could not resist echoing his tweet months ago about the size of the nuclear button on his desk: America’s nuclear capabilities “are so massive and powerful” that he should never be tempted to reach for them.
It may have been intended to intimidate. But it seems more likely to spur Kim to new demonstrations of his own capabilities to reach U.S. cities with North Korean missiles.
The question about North Korea now is the same question Washington is asking about Iran: What is their next chess move? Are they likely to escalate?
For now, the Iranians have indicated they are taking it slow. But history suggests that North Korea’s reaction to the end of negotiations is almost always to create a crisis — and see if that, in turn, forces the United States back to the table. When the “Agreed Framework” with the Clinton administration collapsed — in part because of North Korean cheating, in part because of the United States’ lack of interest in moving toward reconciliation — Kim’s father moved to the country’s first nuclear tests.
When accords were scuttled at the end of the Bush administration, the North tested a new president, Barack Obama, with a series of larger nuclear tests and then a race to build intercontinental missiles.
Even before he came to office, Trump complained — accurately — that the incremental approaches pursued by his predecessors had failed.
He inherited a North Korea that had exploited America’s distraction during Iraq, Afghanistan and the Iran negotiations, and managed to build 20 to 60 nuclear weapons. The North had paid almost no price. So Trump did what he learned to do in the New York real estate market: Make maximalist demands, inflict pain and then begin a negotiation.
But his “fire and fury” approach resulted in reactions he had never seen in the private market. Moon became so concerned that a new, famously volatile U.S. president could trip into a war on the Korean Peninsula, that he raced to wrap Trump into a negotiation that would make it difficult for the United States to launch the kind of pre-emptive attack Bolton had advocated.
Moon then showered Trump with effusive praise, even to the point of endorsing the premature talk about Nobel Peace Prizes. “Moon’s role is what is entirely new this time,” Perry noted, hours before the summit planning fell apart. The South Korean president saw himself as the essential go-between, the central player in coaxing both sides back on track when moments of crisis — like this one — arise.
Now comes the test of his peacemaking skills.
“The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and building a permanent peace on the peninsula is a task we cannot give up or delay,” Moon said in Seoul on Thursday, calling the cancellation of the summit “disconcerting and very regrettable.” He urged Trump and Kim to talk directly.
Moon’s task is to rebuild what fell apart. But first there must be a diagnosis of what went wrong.
Overheated rhetoric on both sides — including unsubtle reminders of each nation’s willingness to wipe the other off the map — was part of it. But that was an occasional feature of the Cold War, too.
The bigger problem was that the United States and North Korea were never on the same page about what the objective of the negotiation should be. Trump, Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had one vision: What they called “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”
But it was a one-sided affair — never once did they raise the likelihood that the United States would have to give something up, too.
Kim used the phrase “denuclearization” as well, but he seemed to be discussing something more like arms control. He was willing to give up part of the arsenal, but only as the United States pulled back its troops in South Korea and gradually surrendered its ability to threaten the North.
Trump, of course, talked about the North giving up all of its weapons in one fell swoop — before allowing, just in the past few days, that he might be willing to try a more gradual approach.
But that was probably too late.
“Zero warheads was never going to be on the table,” said Robert S. Litwak, senior vice president of the Wilson Center for International Scholars, who wrote a detailed study of how to deal, gradually, with defanging the North Korean threat. He said Trump needs to move to something closer to the 2015 Iranian deal, which constrained but did not eliminate Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.
That, of course, is the deal Trump just walked away from a few weeks ago, meaning that he now has two nuclear crises on his hands at once.