When, in early March, Donald Trump agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the Washington foreign policy elite nearly suffered a collective heart attack.
For one thing, the announcement came as a complete surprise. Trump had telegraphed his other foreign policy bombshells well in advance: leaving the Paris climate accord, ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, reversing détente with Cuba. North Korea was another matter. Trump had repeatedly insulted Kim Jong Un in his trademark style, calling him “Little Rocket Man” on Twitter and threatening at the UN in September 2017 to “totally destroy North Korea.” Official Washington was braced for war, not peace.
You’d think, then, that an announcement of jaw-jaw, not war-war, would have met with universal acclaim in the nation’s capital. Instead, observers across the ideological spectrum found fault with Trump and his attempt to denuclearize North Korea through negotiations. They criticized his timing, his impulsiveness, even the fact that the announcement came from South Korean representatives visiting Washington and not the president himself.
Experts on Korea promptly decried the president’s move because he hadn’t demanded any North Korean concessions first. “We’d expect such a highly symbolic meeting to happen after some concrete deliverables were in hand, not before,” tweeted New America Foundation fellow Suzanne DiMaggio. (In fact, the North Koreans had declared a moratorium on further testing of their nukes and missiles, but that apparently didn’t count.)
Worse yet, the North Koreans were getting the summit of their dreams for nothing. “Kim will accomplish the dream of his father and grandfather by making North Korea a nuclear state,” tweeted Abraham Denmark, head of Asia programs at the Wilson Center, “and gain tremendous prestige and legitimacy by meeting with an American president as an equal. All without giving up a single warhead or missile.”
Although some foreign policy professionals did express cautious optimism that something good could still come from the first summit between an American president and a North Korean leader — now officially scheduled for June 12th in Singapore — the overall verdict was one of barely concealed dismay. “The US has been getting played and outmaneuvered the past three months… and it’s happening again, right now,” tweeted former Pentagon official Van Jackson.
Skepticism is, of course, the default position of the foreign policy community. Bad things happen all the time in geopolitics; peace is an extraordinarily difficult feat to pull off; and most diplomatic outcomes are, at best, glass-half-full affairs. So, for pundits eager to maintain their gigs on network TV and a steady stream of interview requests from print journalists, it was a far better bet to put their chips on double zero.
And it’s true, the history of US-North Korean relations has been a graveyard of defunct initiatives: the Agreed Framework of 1994, the Six Party Talks from 2003 to 2007, the Leap Day Agreement of 2012. If North Korea were to cancel the summit because of US-South Korean military exercises or the inflammatory statements of John Bolton, it would become just another headstone. Far more competent negotiators than Donald Trump tried their hands at preventing the North from going nuclear and suffered epic fails. More troubling still, Trump was preparing for negotiations without even an ambassador in South Korea, lacking a special representative for North Korean policy, and with a new secretary of state barely confirmed by the Senate. In other words, at that key moment, “understaffed” would have been an understatement when it came to the US diplomatic corps and the Koreas.
Finally, both Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump have posted some of the highest negatives since Attila the Hun. The notion that two such wrongs could make a right certainly tests the credulity of the most dispassionate observer. You wouldn’t normally want to buy a used car, much less a complex diplomatic deal, from either of them.
And yet, don’t fool yourself (even if most of Washington does): the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, if it happens, will represent an extraordinarily important step forward, whether it actually produces an agreement of substance or not. It may not end the longest ongoing conflict in US history, but that’s really not the point. The summit’s importance lies largely in its symbolic encouragement of another process entirely, one already underway between the two Koreas. US observers remain focused on nuclear weapons, but nukes aren’t actually the key issue here. In fact, for all the talk about Donald Trump getting a Nobel Prize, to put events in perspective you need to remember that the American president is, at best, a third wheel in what’s developing.
The leaders of the two Koreas have effectively manipulated him into supporting a genuinely hopeful, potentially history-changing process of reconciliation on their peninsula. It’s been a brilliant tactic and if US observers of Korea could put aside their kneejerk skepticism, as well as their America First biases, they would be applauding the best chance in decades for Koreans themselves to defuse the most dangerous situation in Asia.
Playing the President
In keeping with his particular brand of narcissism, Donald Trump is convinced that he alone is responsible for bringing about change on the Korean peninsula. He believes that his threats against the North, his push for tougher sanctions, and his pressure on China to tighten the screws on its erstwhile ally were the key factors in Kim Jong Un’s decision at the beginning of 2018 to reach out to his southern neighbor and extend an olive branch to Washington.
In truth, the initial impetus for the changes in Korea had little to do with President Trump.
After his country conducted its sixth nuclear test in September 2017 and its first ICBM test that November, the North Korean leader must have come to believe that his nuclear weapons program was the sufficiently solid deterrent and valuable bargaining chip he had been seeking. By then, too, he had consolidated his political control in Pyongyang by purging the party, the military, and even his own family, leaving him confident that he could negotiate agreements outside the country without worrying about a palace coup back home. Finally, the North Korean economy was actually managing modest growth, despite the fierce American sanctions campaign against it. This was in part because so many countries were willing to look the other way in the face of widespread violations of the global sanctions regime.
Undoubtedly, Kim was aware of warning signs as well: a dangerous economic dependence on China, a lack of capital for investment, and a declining growth rate. When it came to all three, the logical place to turn was South Korea. Since taking office in March 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had pushed hard for a new engagement policy with the North.
For many months, Pyongyang did not respond, so Moon mended fences where he could. He launched a “New Northern Policy,” focusing on fostering further cooperation with Russia. That November, he reached a compromise with China, promising not to expand a new US missile defense system placed in South Korea earlier in the year in exchange for Beijing lifting restrictions on trade and investment.
In a New Year’s speech in January 2018, however, Kim Jong Un suddenly and very publicly reversed his position. Moon was already well primed — some might say desperate — to take advantage of such a gesture. As a result, in the full glare of international media attention, the two Koreas suddenly launched a policy of cooperation at the 2018 Winter Olympics being held at the time in the south. Then, at the end of April, Kim and Moon actually met in the first inter-Korean summit to take place on South Korean soil.
This was, admittedly, not the first time the two Koreas had attempted a détente, but previous efforts had been stymied, at least in part, by American opposition. Congressional hostility toward North Korea during the latter years of the Clinton era and George W. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in his ominous “axis of evil” in 2002 put a distinct damper on the possibility of inter-Korean cooperation.
This time, however, the two leaders adopted a new strategy for roping the United States into the process. Instead of appealing to the Korea policy community in Washington — an unimaginative gaggle of Cassandras — each of them decided to “turn” the US president.
Initially, both were undoubtedly as bemused by Donald Trump’s erratic foreign policy tweets as the rest of the world. Still, Kim and his officials reached out to Republican-linked analysts in Washington and soon grasped that the new president valued personal relationships, discounted the advice of policy professionals, dismissed the importance of human rights, and measured his successes largely by the failures of his predecessors, especially Barack Obama.
Keep in mind as well that, for all the hostility Trump had directed toward Pyongyang during the 2016 presidential campaign, he had also signaled — though at the time it was treated as a throwaway line — that he’d be pleased to meet Kim Jong Un and serve him “a hamburger on a conference table.” As president, in May 2017, months before he started threatening to deliver “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to the North, he even called Kim a “smart cookie” and reiterated his willingness to sit down with him. In both instances, he received mockery, not support, from America’s Korea watchers who considered him “naïve” (which was true but beside the point).
Most critically, the North Koreans evidently realized that they could appeal to Trump’s desire to destroy the legacy of Barack Obama. The president had fervently promised to unravel anything and everything his predecessor had ever done, from health care to climate change. But on the Korean peninsula, Obama had never achieved a thing. His policy of “strategic patience” had amounted to little more than eight years of hoping that North Korea would relocate to another planet. In such a situation, the North’s appalling human rights record, its spotty negotiating history, and its very real nuclear weapons program mattered little in Trump’s quest to once again one-up Obama.
South Korea faced a similar set of challenges. In the fall of 2017, Trump accused Moon Jae-in of the “appeasement” of North Korea, though he provided no specifics. Normally, such a charge would have been poison in Washington. Moon could certainly have upped the ante by retaliating in kind. Instead, he cannily held his tongue — and when the tone suddenly shifted in inter-Korean relations in early 2018, the South Korean president pursued a psychologically even smarter tactic: he began heaping compliments on President Trump for making it all happen.
True, Moon’s over-the-top praise flew in the face of what really lay behind the transformation in relations, but he, too, had been well briefed on the president’s personality and predilections. He, too, grasped that the American narcissist-in-chief would incline toward praise like a plant toward the sun. When asked if he should get a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, Moon immediately insisted that it was Trump, and Trump alone, who deserved such an honor. (Only later did Trump’s base begin chanting “Nobel! Nobel! Nobel!”)
The leaders of both Koreas grasped a reality that eluded Washington’s pundits: that Donald Trump was their best chance of disarming a skeptical American foreign policy elite. In gaining Trump’s support, the two Koreas have indeed, however paradoxically, neutralized the United States as an actor in the drama of inter-Korean relations.
Confronting the Impossible
Think of the story of the two Koreas as a parable of two “impossibles.”
The first impossible is denuclearization. Now that North Korea has a nuclear weapons program, it’s difficult to imagine that it will surrender such weaponry. After all, given the relative decline of its conventional forces, nukes provide a genuine insurance policy against any outside effort at regime change. They’re also the main reason the United States pays any attention to the country. Without nuclear weapons, North Korea would become as vulnerable as Iraq was in 2003 and as irrelevant as Laos after 1975. Nuclear weapons are Pyongyang’s ticket to international respect. Why on Earth would Kim Jong Un give them up in exchange for a non-aggression “guarantee” from the United States, a pledge that a subsequent administration might simply tear up (just as Trump recently shredded Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran)?
The second impossible is reunification. The Koreas are about as far apart as two countries coexisting in the same century could be, as economically disparate as Germany and Ghana, as politically different as Athens and Sparta. One country is thoroughly connected to the world community; the other maintains an isolation policy comparable to eighteenth-century Japan’s. Like matter and anti-matter, the two Koreas risk catastrophe if suddenly brought together.
There are three imaginable ways of dealing with these two impossibles. The first, of course, is the regime-change approach of National Security Advisor John Bolton and his fan club. The idea would be to accelerate the demise of Kim’s regime either indirectly through covert means or even directly through war. In the wake of a North Korean collapse, according to this crackpot scenario, the US Army would sweep into that country, gathering up the loose nukes, while South Korea absorbed the north just as West Germany swallowed East Germany in 1990. No one with an ounce of sense, from academics to Pentagon officials, considers this a viable approach, given the heightened risk of a war with mass casualties, possibly tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands dead and wounded, and the potential use of some of the North’s nukes in South Korea and beyond. And that’s not even taking into consideration the South’s unwillingness to contemplate the immense costs of an overnight reunification.
Despite Trump’s embrace of a summit with Kim Jong Un, Bolton hasn’t given up on this regime-change approach. He initially sought to load the summit agenda with enough non-nuclear issues (missiles, abductions of Japanese and South Koreans) to make it unwieldy and bound to fail. More critically, he insisted that the “Libya” model would serve as the example the United States would follow with North Korea — an ominous signal, given that the regime of Muammar Gaddafi collapsed under the pressure of a US-NATO intervention several years after it gave up its nuclear program. In explaining why North Korea might cancel the summit with Trump, a government spokesman singled out Bolton and his Libya references. And in truth, the North Korean reaction was not a “tantrum,” as the Washington Post editorialized, but a reasonable objection to Bolton’s tactics.
The second approach, the default position for several decades, has been to wait for North Korea to “come to its senses” and beg for an agreement with the United States. Tighter sanctions and an inflexible negotiating position, the adherents of this theory believe, will eventually inflict so much pain on the North that, sooner or later, even the autocratic leadership of Pyongyang will realize its people can’t eat nukes and trade them in for a ticket to the global economy. However attractive this strategy may look, it obviously hasn’t worked over many years. Here, Trump’s critique of the Obama administration has for once been accurate.
The third approach, slow-motion reunification, finally seems to be emerging as the plan of choice for both Koreas. It treats each of the impossibles as resolvable over time.
Moon Jae-in adopted this approach to reunification from his mentor, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. Cooperative economic projects are to be designed to gradually bridge the income gap between the two countries. Negotiations over a rail link and fishing rights in adjoining waters are meant to begin the process of harmonizing the political approaches of the two countries. According to a plan Moon delivered to Kim via USB drive at the April summit, South Korea would help its northern neighbor enter the global community by degrees so that, like a diver surfacing from a great depth, it wouldn’t suffer the bends.
Denuclearization is equally tricky. But a slow-motion process might also square the circle. If North Korea and the United States agree to a staged reduction of the North’s nuclear weapons in exchange for a gradually increasing set of incentives, Kim Jong Un could potentially have his nukes (for a while) and give them up as well (eventually).
Although the elimination of nuclear weapons may be the ultimate goal — for North Korea as well as all other nuclear states — denuclearization as such could prove a distraction in the medium term. After all, Kim Jong Un could decide to reverse such a commitment or continue to pursue the objective secretly. So the goal should really be to ensure that North Korea doesn’t want to use those weapons — or any other weapons — because to do so would jeopardize its newfound position in the global economy. That was the US strategy toward China in the 1970s after it, too, had become a nuclear power and it worked without either denuclearization or regime change.
In other words, the worst position Trump could take in Singapore would be to demand that North Korea completely and immediately abandon its nuclear weaponry before it receives any benefits from a reduction in global economic sanctions. By contrast, a more gradual timeline for denuclearization could well dovetail with slow-motion reunification. What many Korea watchers insist is a fatal flaw in the Trump-Kim summit — a completely different understanding of what denuclearization entails — might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Such strategic ambiguity could allow both sides to make interim compromises and embrace an interim reduction in tensions even though they were incapable of really agreeing on the end game.
Which brings us back to all the skepticism surrounding the upcoming summit. Sure, it might end up more show than substance, but that would be fine. What the two Koreas really need is the equivalent of a papal benediction from Trump. Let the American president claim the credit, all of it, for processes of denuclearization and reunification meant to intersect at some distant horizon. Let him preen about his contributions to world peace (while he ratchets up war tensions against Iran). Let his fans chant and his Republican backers in Congress nominate him for a Nobel Prize. Let him cling to his misconceptions about North Korea, nukes, and the nature of geopolitics.
And then let him get out of the way so that the Koreans can do the real work, the historic work, the breakthrough work, of knitting the peninsula back together.
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