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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
President Trump confidently reassured the American people via Twitter, after his June 12 Singapore Summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, that they could “sleep well tonight” as “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”
The first sitting President to meet with a member of North Korea’s ruling Kim family, Trump was confident that he had succeeded where the more measured diplomacy of his three predecessors – Clinton, Bush, and Obama – had failed. His devoted followers began chanting “Nobel Peace Prize” at a political rally even before his departure for Singapore. Trump himself declared just a week before the historic summit that “I don’t think I have to prepare very much” for his meeting with the North Korean leader.
On June 7 in Washington, while meeting with an obviously worried and skeptical Japanese Prime Minister Abe, whose nation lies on the front-line of any North Korean nuclear threat, a confident Trump observed that it is about “attitude” rather than “preparation.”
A little bit of preparation, however, might have revealed the seventy-year-old “attitude” of the North Korean ruling elite, chronicled by former Pentagon official Chuck Downs in his seminal work “Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy” (which contains a 1968 photograph on its book cover of the USS Pueblo crew surrendering to the North Koreans with raised hands.)
Perhaps a little preparatory knowledge of Pyongyang’s brinkmanship negotiating style might have been in order before giving the young North Korean leader something his more illustrious grandfather and father had long sought but were never able to achieve – face time on the world stage with the leader of the free world. But it seems that the dog ate the White House briefing books.
Is it any surprise that within forty-eight hours of the historic summit (June 14), Axios was reporting that a leaked Israeli intelligence report “raises doubts about President Trump’s optimistic statements about his summit with Kim Jong-un” and “determined that the U.S. retreated from its positions on several issues relating to North Korea’s nuclear program.”
Part of the report was quoted verbatim: “Regardless of the smiles in the summit many in Japan, South Korea and the U.S. Congress doubt that North Korea is sincere in its intentions. Our assessment is that regardless of President Trump’s statements about quick changes that are expected in North Korean policy, the road to real and substantive change, if it ever happens, will be long and slow.”
Israel has, of course, legitimate national security concerns about North Korea’s nuclear development: Pyongyang has for years been playing nuclear footsie with both the Iranians and Syrians.
This was most famously done with the construction of a Yongbyon-style nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert, which the Israelis removed in a surgical strike back in September 2007. This followed Israeli concerns being put on a backburner by Washington then very much focused on advancing the Six-Party Talks with Pyongyang.
The Kim family is not always merely playing games when they turn up the propaganda
It comes as no surprise that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s designated point man on North Korea, received a rather frosty reception during his recent follow-up trip to Pyongyang.
The Young General, having secured the supreme prize of a meeting with the American President, chose not to see Pompeo this time around, reportedly choosing instead to visit a potato farm – even though he has personally greeted basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman during his numerous visits to Pyongyang.
At the same time, North Korea official media ginned up Pyongyang’s substantial propaganda machine, denouncing the U.S. “gangster-like mindset” and calling the outcome of discussions with Pompeo “worrisome.” Pyongyang media further stated that the U.S. delegation put forward “cancerous issues” that “amplified” distrust and raised again the risk of war. Secretary Pompeo was dismissive of this renewed fiery rhetoric, stating “if I paid attention to what the press said, I’d go nuts.”
The Kim family is not always merely playing games when they turn up the propaganda. When Pyongyang informed a Vietnam War-weary Johnson administration, back in 1968 that they would hold the USS Pueblo crew until they received some sort of an apology, they did so for almost a year.
When in 1976, a year after a war-weary Ford Administration had evacuated South Vietnam, North Korean forces told a U.S. and South Korean joint team to desist from cutting down a tree blocking UN forces’ view in the DMZ, their warnings were ignored. (The tree, the North Koreans insisted, had been planted by, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung.) North Korean soldiers then grabbed axes and killed two U.S. army officers.
When the North Koreans threatened revenge for taking a hit in a military face-off with South Korea along the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea, they made good on their threat by torpedoing a South Korean military vessel in 2010, killing 46 South Korean sailors. And just last year, having indicated weariness with the candid and often critical comments of his half-brother in exile, Kim Jong Un arranged to have him assassinated with chemical weapons in public view at a busy international airport.
Do these actions look like mere bluffing?
Kim had astutely already sold Washington the equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge even before the Singapore Summit. In the lead up to the summit, he announced plans to shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site. Hailed as a major breakthrough by the American administration, Punggye-ri was already seen a white elephant for North Korea’s nuclear program.
Chinese geologists had reported in April that the site “had partially collapsed and was perhaps unusable,” according to the Guardian newspaper. “They had probably done a lot of damage to the site with the last test, so might as well get credit for a tunnel you don’t want to use,” observed Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With Punggye-ri lying in close proximity to the Chinese and Russian borders, even the abrasive Kim could not risk further testing which could lead to leakage causing radiation sickness for Chinese and Russian citizens.
Kim had astutely already sold Washington the equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge even before the Singapore Summit
And who needs Punggye-ri anyway? On June 27 – just a little more than two weeks after the summit that was supposed to make Americans sleep well at night – satellite imagery provided by the 38 North website indicated that “North Korea has made rapid improvements to the infrastructure at its Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center – a facility used to produce weapons-grade fissile material,” according to a CNN report.
A look in the rearview mirror at the Singapore Summit indicates that Kim Jong Un collected a treasure trove of “deliverables”: the long-sought-after one-on-one meeting with the American president, an immense boost in international prestige, a pledge from President Trump to suspend U.S. military exercises with South Korea, and even an off-the-cuff comment by the President that he would like to see the American troops in South Korea “come home.”
It was a summit that seemed to move forward North Korea’s unswerving goal throughout the Cold War and beyond to have a “nuclear free Korean peninsula” achieved by the removal of U.S. ground forces from the peninsula and the lifting of the American nuclear umbrella provided for South Korea’s defense.
And then there was that photograph that made Pyongyang’s propaganda hit parade for over a 24-hour cycle: the Commander-in-chief saluting a North Korean general – a general whose major aim in life is to kill, if necessary, as many of the 28,000 U.S. military forces stationed in South Korea as possible.
What did Donald Trump gain? A photo op on the world stage which will be defined as his “Nixon-goes-to-China” moment; fantasies of a Nobel Peace Prize dancing in his head and those of his most ardent followers; and almost immediately verified backtracking by Pyongyang on whatever commitments Trump thought he garnered in Singapore to allow his fellow citizens to rest easy.
And despite flippant assertions that his predecessors – Clinton, Bush, and Obama – were all too gullible in their failed efforts to stop the arduous march of the Kim family and North Korea toward becoming a self-proclaimed “nuclear weapons state,” the Trump Administration may be soon left crooning that old Hank Williams song with regard to the crafty Kim Jong Un: “Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES