President Trump, with his predilection for headline-grabbing policy reversals, recently announced that he had changed course on North Korea.
The President made a complete reversal of his pledge, given during his first UN speech last September, to “totally destroy” the North Korean regime of the “rocket man,” (to the apparent horror of the gathered UN General Assembly delegates.) Trump suddenly announced on March 8, with no forewarning, that he had accepted an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to meet “as soon as possible.”
This was largely unexpected: it came soon after intense speculation that the United States was ready to deliver a “bloody nose” via a surgical strike on North Korean nuclear facilities – a strike which would likely have resulted in Pyongyang retaliating against South Korea.
In an unprecedented diplomatic move, the President seemingly outsourced U.S. North Korea policy by having South Korean envoy Chung Eui-yong unilaterally make the announcement while standing outside the White House with no American official present.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the entire State Department were reportedly totally kept in the dark about the sudden policy shift, despite Trump apparently adopting a policy long advocated by Tillerson.
The Secretary had recently been slapped down by Trump after suggesting at the Atlantic Council in December that diplomatic negotiations with “no preconditions” would be the U.S. approach to solving the problem of North Korea.
The White House immediately undercut Tillerson, with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issuing a statement noting that “the President’s views on North Korea have not changed,” according to a December 12th report in the Hill.
Of course, days after the North Korea policy reversal, Rex Tillerson would be out as Secretary of State.
The genesis of the sudden North Korea policy change appears to have been the three-day trip to the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics by Ivanka Trump. South Korean President Moon Jae-in spent a great deal of face time with the First Daughter, apparently successfully convincing her that a strategy of talking to North Korea, rather than bombing it, was the way to go.
Confirmation soon came of Ivanka’s new role as America’s unofficial Korea envoy – with the Secretary of State gone, United States Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun suddenly retiring, and Victor Cha being dropped at the last minute as the new American ambassador to Seoul. It was even confirmed by the White House that Ivanka would be taking a scheduled meeting for the dismissed Tillerson with the visiting South Korean foreign minister.
Few Korea experts, however, are convinced that Kim Jong Un is seriously considering the elimination of his nuclear weapons
South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha reportedly struck up a friendship with Ivanka Trump in February and “the talks were arranged when the pair met during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang,” according to a March 16 report in Newsweek.
Though a South Korean foreign ministry spokesperson did not disclose what would be discussed at the meeting, “reports suggested it would involve planning for summits between the U.S. and North Korea, and between North and South Korea.”
The increasing involvement of Jared and Ivanka in foreign policy issues, previously the purview of the State Department, according to legislation passed by the Congress in 1789, reportedly irked Tillerson. The Washington Post reported on March 19 that “at one point, Tillerson told his staff, ‘who is Secretary of State here?’”
The Kim-Trump summit will be preceded by a meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, set for the end of April in the DMZ truce village of Panmunjom.
This was agreed to at a March 5 meeting in Pyongyang between Kim Jong Un and a five-member South Korean delegation led by National Security Council chief Chung Eui-yong (who later visited the White House to brief U.S. officials on inter-Korean diplomacy and apparently helped to convince President Trump to hold his own meeting with Kim – possibly as early as May.)
THE FINE PRINT – AND A PINCH OF SKEPTICISM
These two summits are reportedly based on a number of preconditions, including no further North Korean nuclear or missile testing in the interim, no use of nuclear and conventional weapons against South Korea, and no objection by Pyongyang to the annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled to begin in April as long as they “would be of a similar scale seen in previous years.”
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reported on March 7 that South Korean envoy Chung indicated that “North Korea might be willing to negotiate relinquishing its nuclear weapons” and “clearly affirmed its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and said it would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons should the safety of its regime be guaranteed and military threats against North Korea be removed.”
Others, including Chinese sources, have indicated that there may be an additional, publicly undisclosed “secret” pre-condition as well.
Few Korea experts, however, are convinced that Kim Jong Un is seriously considering the elimination of his nuclear weapons stockpile for a whole series of reasons.
This latest round of talks could very well prove to be just one more Pyongyang con game
First, Kim is all too aware of what happened to Libyan leader Gaddafi after he dismantled his nuclear arsenal. Second, Kim has staked the ideological foundation of his regime on the “guns-and-butter” national strategy of byungjin (parallel development of the economy and nuclear weapons.) Third, in 2013 the Supreme People’s Assembly officially declared that North Korea is “a nuclear weapons state.”
Pyongyang is fully aware that the regime’s possession of a developing nuclear weapons capability is the sole reason that this economic backwater receives the international prestige and attention which it craves. Without the nuclear threat, North Korea becomes just one more poverty-stricken Third World dictatorship.
Kim’s agreement to summitry, as a result, should be viewed as a tactical move. Escalating sanctions may be beginning to take a real bite, making it increasingly problematic for Kim to provide the luxury goods that keep his generals and senior cadre in line.
He may be taking a page from his father’s playbook. Kim Jong Il, after all, successfully dragged out negotiations with the Clinton administration (Agreed Framework) and second Bush Administration (Six-Party Talks) while procuring economic incentives which helped keep the regime afloat.
This latest round of talks could very well prove to be just one more Pyongyang con game designed to empty the pockets of South Koreans willing to pay protection money and of Americans distracted by other global concerns (like a possible trans-Pacific trade war with China.)
South Korea also should temper its obvious relief that the “bloody nose” option, which would leave Seoul in shambles, has been at least temporarily relegated to the backburner. President Trump is highly unpredictable.
BUMPY ROAD AHEAD
One remaining obstacle to the proposed summitry is the continued incarceration in North Korea of three U.S, citizens. They have languished largely forgotten since the return from the North Korean gulag and subsequent death of Otto Warmbier a year ago.
As President Trump chose to highlight North Korean human rights abuses in his State of the Union address earlier this year, with Otto Warmbier’s parents present, he could hardly go forward with a meeting with Kim without first securing the release of these American citizens.
And just as Trump contemplates peaceful outcomes on the Korean peninsula, he has this week chosen former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton to replace General H.R. McMaster as White House National Security Advisor (NSA).
This is the very same John Bolton who penned a February 28 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”
In that article, Bolton wrote: “CIA Director (and current nominee as Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo said in January that Pyongyang was within ’a handful of months’ of being able to deliver nuclear warheads to the U.S. How long must America wait before it acts to eliminate that threat?”
With Bolton appointed as the Trump administration’s third National Security Advisor in little over a year, one of his priorities will likely be to undermine the proposed Kim-Trump summit: he has said that the meeting should be allowed to fail to pave the way for a military option.
That may, however, not be all that easy. The President has, for now, fully embraced the optics of Seoul’s (and Ivanka’s) peace initiative.
The impulsive American President would appear to have few qualms about setting problematic diplomatic precedents
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Trump apparently sees himself as a latter-day Nixon who can, as Nixon once famously opened China, open the Hermit Kingdom. And while the venue for the proposed meeting has yet to be determined, replicating Nixon would require travel to the very heart of the adversary’s capital.
Kim Jong Un, who has yet to leave North Korean territory since assuming power in 2011, would certainly prefer the propaganda coup of having the “barbarian chieftain” come in apparent homage to the “emperor,” just as Mao once did.
Alternate venues are all problematic – Kim would not favor a meeting in China, whose leader Xi Jinping has consistently snubbed him; Russia would present obvious public relations difficulties for Trump; Japan is impossible because of history; Guam or another American territory might appear as a concession to the American “imperialists;” and the DMZ is already the site of the upcoming summit with the South Korean president.
Pyongyang seems the most likely site, especially since the impulsive American President would appear to have few qualms about setting problematic diplomatic precedents.
If, despite these remaining obstacles, the Kim-Trump summit does, in fact, take place, Seoul may learn the meaning of the adage “be careful what you wish for.”
Donald Trump, confident that he can carry out “the Art of the Deal” with the wily Kim, could end up giving away the store. North Korea will certainly make promises on denuclearization, as his father did with Clinton and George W. Bush, which it has no intention of keeping.
This will be done in exchange for pledges of economic incentives and an easing of sanctions (bribes). Kim Jong Un may even use the summit to reach for Pyongyang’s golden fleece: a bilateral peace treaty with the United States formally ending the Korean War and arranging a schedule for withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula.
Trump has consistently minimized the national security concerns of America’s traditional allies and accused Seoul, among others, of not paying its fair share for its defense – and for the stationing of U. S. forces on the Korean peninsula.
He could thus see an American withdrawal as killing two birds with one stone: getting “peace, peace, peace” on the Korean peninsula and relieving American taxpayers of the financial and family burden of forward-deploying their uniformed offspring on the far-off Korean peninsula.
If this scenario were to come to pass, the world would soon learn that the Kim-Trump peace summit amounted to little more than “fake news.”
Pyongyang would likely bare its nuclear fangs to Seoul upon the departure of U.S. forces. And South Korea would then be reminded of the old Chinese proverb: “those who ride the back of the tiger (an impulsive President Trump) end up inside (North Korea).”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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