The announcement that President Trump will be holding a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un by May is giving rise to feverish speculation on what could have precipitated this sudden turn of events. It is not yet known what kind of promise North Korea has made to Trump in order to make the meeting possible.
Pyongyang’s entreaties could have been as plain as a vague commitment to denuclearization; or, it could have been a more detailed offer with concrete steps towards complete nuclear disarmament. Regardless of the nature of the message, Kim Jong Un will eventually have to make a commitment to CVID (Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Dismantlement) of his nuclear program – lest the talks fall apart.
Yet complete denuclearization is simply not acceptable for a regime that has committed its existence to the attainment of nuclear state status. If Trump truly wants to make the summit a genuine and lasting breakthrough despite the odds against him, then he should understand why prior schemes to trade incentives for concessions failed.
The first reason why North Korea was able to renege on its deals, yet able to negotiate new ones several times over the span of a quarter of a century, is the absence of accountability for its actions. One chief advantage that North Korea has over its democratic counterpart is its nature as a totalitarian dictatorship.
In contrast, democracies by definition are beholden to an internal source of accountability, i.e., periodic elections. North Korea does not need to produce results to maintain political support and therefore it seldom needs to answer for the failure of its policies, including the breakdown of agreements with foreign countries.
Complete denuclearization is simply not acceptable for a regime that has committed its existence to the attainment of nuclear state status
MISTAKES OF THE PAST
In the absence of internal sources of accountability, North Korea’s counterparts have to look for external ones. One could argue that the history of past 25 years of dealing with North Korea was precisely about ensuring accountability to get North Korea to live up to the terms of the deal.
Zeroing on the North Korean regime’s need to gain resources to support itself economically, the international community believed that the answer lay with an economic incentive scheme. That is, Pyongyang would be offered economic incentives, along with diplomatic and political agreements, in exchange for taking concrete steps towards denuclearization.
The Agreed Framework in the 90s and South Korea’s Sunshine policy fell under this rubric. But there was a fundamental flaw in this thinking: the absence of incentives did not constitute a strong enough disincentive for North Korea to abandon its goal of becoming a nuclear state.
Trump and his advisors have avoided this problem with the campaign of “maximum pressure.” The threat of military action was clearly a powerful deterrent and disincentive for North Korea from engaging in further provocations.
Apparently, the recent U.S.-military exercises carried out around the peninsula had a threat profile that the regime’s leader, Kim Jong Un, only leader of the country since 2011, had seldom experienced before.
It was not pressure alone that did the trick, but Trump’s unpredictable and unorthodox approach made the U.S. threat option even more credible.
This could only have been done by Trump himself, as he is known to have rejected policy orthodoxies, domestically and internationally. He has attacked NATO and threatened to dismantle the free trade system, unthinkable actions by anyone but Trump. The President’s unpredictability clearly messed with North Korea’s carefully calibrated brinkmanship tactics that rest on the adversaries’ rational and risk-averse response.
North Korea excels at offering grandiose yet empty gestures in return for real payoffs
Now that pressure has had the expected effect, Trump and his advisors seem to believe that they can go ahead with the next stage of talks with North Korea as long as “maximum pressure” is on the sidelines waiting on pounce in a moment’s notice. They could not be more wrong, because pressure, even with Trump’s unpredictable nature making it more effective, will be neutralized once the United States is earnestly engaged in dialogue with North Korea.
The fundamental reason why previous attempts at negotiation failed was because North Korea took advantage of the inherent limitation that democracies have, namely the elected leadership’s need for political validation. North Korea excels at offering grandiose yet empty gestures in return for real payoffs.
This is how the regime has been able to take advantage of South Korean Presidents’ ambitions to produce positive achievements in the area of inter-Korean relations: every South Korean president to date since Park Chung-hee in the 70s has tried to hold a summit with his or her North Korean counterpart, although the first only came about in 2000 with Kim Dae-jung.
The need to produce demonstrable achievements before the end of President Kim’s term weakened South Korea’s bargaining position and resulted in hurried economic cooperation agreements and even secret cash transfers to satisfy North Korea’s demands, not mentioning the failure to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
It is highly likely that North Korea is dangling the promise of a summit with the hope that Trump is in need of a major political validation. Kim Jong Un is likely hoping that Trump has accepted holding the summit with an eye on the upcoming mid-term elections in November.
So will North Korea agree to CVID this time? Yes, for the time being, and for purpose of making the summit a success for Trump. North Korea understands that once the seemingly impossible happens –a climactic meeting with Kim Jong Un and North Korea’s apparent capitulation—accolades will pour in for Trump, even from critics who will begrudgingly acknowledge that his instincts were right all along.
This is exactly the effect that North Korea would be looking for. Once Trump takes credit for the success, as he is bound to do, and his name is deeply associated with the negotiation process, it will be very difficult for the President to walk away from his best foreign policy success to date.
Would he be able to walk away if North Korea doesn’t deliver? Or would he instead defend North Korea’s actions in order to preserve his political capital?
From Kim Jong Un’s perspective, the sooner the summit is held, the better. There will not be sufficient time for both sides to figure out a mutually satisfying way of operationalizing the CVID of North Korea’s nuclear program by May.
Subsequent talks to iron out the details are going to be long and arduous: exactly the way North Korea likes them, having learned that the rapid political cycle in democratic societies permits North Korea not to live up to its end of the bargain.
So what would be the advice for Trump? He should be prepared to call his biggest foreign policy success to date a failure and walk away, including from the summit, lest his ownership of the success makes him, not North Korea, the responsible party in case of negotiation’s breakdown.
And once North Korea has agreed to a complete and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear and missile program, Trump should execute the implementation in a compressed time frame to minimize the chance of North Korea taking advantage of the U.S. political cycle.
All the while he should stay unpredictable as the best way to enforce the deal. Let’s all hope that Trump approaches negotiations with Kim Jong Un with an unaccustomed level of patience and discipline.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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