Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
Negotiations between the United States and North Korea regarding the denuclearization of that brutal dictatorship are at a standstill after Pyongyang walked away from working group discussions recently.
However, the present setback of Pyongyang-Washington relations is not entirely due to the intransigence of North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un.
While Kim is indeed an untrustworthy and murderous dictator with unreasonable demands for near-total sanctions relief, that is hardly the complete story.
Unfortunately, much of the blame lies with past and present American leaders, their partisan appointees and security advisors, and the attendant professional ‘experts’ that cycle in and out of government according to how the political winds blow.
It does not help that few of those plodding the halls of power seem to know much about Asia.
HISTORY IN ASIA IS SCARCELY DEAD
As explained in greater detail, the relationships between and among the major state actors in Northeast Asia – China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, and South Korea in addition to the United States – are complex and often have a long history going back even centuries.
The United States all too often fails to maintain an awareness of how the dynamics of historical animosities continue to affect relations even today.
One especially telling example of this occurred roughly four years ago as Seoul and Tokyo were making a desperate attempt to patch up their differences regarding Imperial Japan’s treatment of young Korean women forced to serve as sexual slaves for Japanese troops during World War II.
It was to the benefit of Washington that this long-festering issue be settled in order to form a unified military alliance against Pyongyang.
Without regard for the sensitivity of the issue, a top American State Department official publically exclaimed that Seoul and Tokyo should just get over it and sign an accord putting an end to the matter.
LESSONS IN NEGOTIATIONS
There is no doubt that negotiating something as critical as nuclear weapons – often seen as key to the survival of a nation – is challenging.
Engaging North Korea is especially so because of Pyongyang’s past behavior over the nearly three decades that such talks have sporadically occurred.
When one does a review of the proceedings and their results, certain lessons jump out for those paying attention.
It was unrealistic to expect Kim to give up all of his nuclear weapons
Furthermore, especially in nuclear discussions, the North uses disassembly, diversion, and nitpicking to delay proceedings as they continue to perfect their weapons delivery systems through missile launches as well as likely increasing their nuclear bomb stockpile while negotiators argue over words.
North Koreans do not use language in the same way the West does – and they cheat.
DID TRUMP TRUMP HIMSELF?
The question arises as to why Pyongyang began its diplomatic outreach in 2017.
Part of the answer is that the North likely felt it had perfected its nuclear weapons with its last detonation in September 2017 and an apparently successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017. Pyongyang might have felt it was worth trying for sanctions relief with American President Donald “Dealmaker” Trump.
Yet, Trump overplayed his hand by not learning the history of relations between Pyongyang and Washington and misjudging Kim Jong Un.
The idea that North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un would suddenly develop enough trust of the United States that he would agree to a grand bargain was far-fetched from the very beginning.
It was unrealistic to expect Kim to give up all of his nuclear weapons and their facilities in exchange for a capitalistic promise of economic paradise.
Moreover, his advisors did not serve him well. For former National Security Advisor John Bolton to propose the “Libyan model” as an example of how North Korea ought to denuclearize was – to put it in polite terms – one of the most mindless thoughts to ever come out of the White House.
After all, Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi voluntarily abandoned his nuclear and chemical weapons program in late 2003 in exchange for sanctions relief from the United States. But only eight years later in 2011, he was toppled from power by Arab Spring rebels that were supported through a U.S. bombing campaign against pro-government forces.
That lesson has not been lost on Kim.
A WEAKENED AMERICAN LEADER
Now, with Trump facing troubles domestically – the threat of impeachment along with a falling approval rate – North Korea seems less interested in making any sort of deal.
In its eyes, the North has the upper hand in dealing with a president who covets a legacy of success in dealing with Pyongyang. In its eyes, the longer they hold out, the better the deal will be.
As for the promises made to his citizens about improving the domestic economy, Kim can point to the United States, saying that it is the Americans and their sanctions that prevent North Korea from making economic progress.
A POOR SUPPORTING CAST
The evidence ought to be clear by now that despite some earlier optimism about this time being different, North Korea is almost certainly not denuclearizing. Yet, career diplomats and politicians continue to urge talks.
That is in part due to an idealist perspective that refuses to read the clues or see the world as it actually is, rather than as they would like it to be.
It does not help that few of those plodding the halls of power seem to know much about Asia
It is also in no small part due to a desire for continued employment and presence in the limelight. Denuclearization discussions cannot occur without “experts” – but without talks, there is no need for those experts.
Yet the experts appear to not understand how the history of the region continues to play out, probably because they are unmindful of it. It is painful to realize that there are relatively few able Asianists in the American foreign policy field.
And even if negotiators do know a bit of history, it is likely only to be the recent record of denuclearization discussions between Washington and Pyongyang over the last three decades.
Despite that damning record, many of them still claim that those past negotiations failed due to some proximate misstep by the United States. Indeed, Washington has not played its hand as well as it could have, but there can be no doubt that the ultimate cause is Pyongyang’s perfidy.
TECHNICAL FOULS REAL AND IMAGINED
Trump’s critics have also unnecessarily roiled the diplomatic waters by criticizing his meetings with Kim – the top-down approach – saying that meeting with Kim accords the North Korean leader undue cachet and recognition.
Such statements conveniently ignore the fact that American presidents have in the past met with equally horrible leaders around the world – Stalin and Mao to name only two, both of whom posed a greater threat to the United States than any Kim.
Moreover, pushing for a restart at the working group level also fails to recognize that nothing can be accomplished at such meetings because the North’s position always has been that everything must always be approved by Kim, the Chairman who controls everything. Sardonically, the North has been dragging its feet on proposed working group meetings now for months.
However, Trump likes to make deals, deals that may look good at the moment but which over time prove to be less so – even disastrous.
Conducting foreign policy on the fly using a quid-pro-quo transactional basis risks making critical decisions without reference to any grand strategy.
What may appear to be a good deal in the present may not necessarily be so in the broader view of regional or other long-term objectives of the United States.
In view of these developments, it seems clear that a full explanation of American failures to deal effectively with North Korea must include – in addition to Trump himself – a damning indictment of the many self-serving politically-appointed ever-rotating in-and-out-of-government officials and partisan advisors.
Such functionaries are too frequently from an in-bred clique that is averse to any new thinking outside the long-standing protocols of their insular field.
Unless this approach changes, dealings with North Korea will achieve little of value.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: White House
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News. Negotiations between the United States and North Korea regarding the denuclearization of that brutal dictatorship are at a standstill after Pyongyang walked away from working group discussions recently.However, the present setback of Pyongyang-Washington relations is not entirely
Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force Korean linguist and analyst/reporter who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years. He continues to follow developments in East Asia closely. Mr. McCoy’s book Tales You Wouldn’t Tell Your Mother is now out. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/ which also lists his previous essays and has personal vignettes on Asia (Tidbits) not published elsewhere.