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View more articles by Jacob Fromer
Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
The U.S. House Judiciary Committee began its first formal impeachment hearing against President Donald Trump on Wednesday — a rare action in American politics with few precedents and uncertain consequences for the U.S. and its relationship with North Korea.
This is only the fourth time Congress has been willing to initiate the impeachment procedure against a commander in chief, and no U.S. president has ever been removed from office.
One, Richard Nixon, in the early 1970s, resigned before the House got to a vote.
Two others — Andrew Johnson, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, in 1868; and Bill Clinton, in the late 1990s — were acquitted by the Senate.
Donald Trump’s fate may be decided in the coming weeks, but for now, predicting the long-term effects of Trump’s impeachment on U.S. policy — especially if he is removed from office — may be a bit like gazing into black hole: whatever new reality awaits on the other side can only be guessed.
Wherever the country does end up, though, one thing is already clear: people are watching.
People in Washington, to be sure — the city has been consumed by public hearings, investigations, and biting rebuttals from Trump since he entered office — but also people in Pyongyang.
Experts and former officials who spoke to NK News for this article were certain that North Korean leadership is likely aware of impeachment and monitoring it.
How they ultimately react to it, however, is an open question.
DIPLOMAT ABROAD, DEFENDANT AT HOME
Can a U.S. President juggle diplomacy and impeachment?
In the coming weeks, President Trump will have to navigate Congressional opposition determined to remove him from office, and a nuclear-armed North Korea determined to outmaneuver him in negotiations.
The impeachment timeline already appears set to collide with Kim Jong Un’s own timeline: the North Korean leader’s year-end deadline for a deal with the U.S is now less than one month away.
Pyongyang has warned in recent weeks that it is prepared to walk away from negotiations altogether if it does not get a meaningful, comprehensive deal from the U.S.
At a Senate confirmation hearing last month for Stephen Biegun — the U.S. envoy to North Korea and current nominee for Deputy Secretary of State — the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee appeared to imply that impeachment is already disrupting American diplomacy.
“Unfortunately, we have a political situation in the United States today regarding the President of the United States that really undermines the discussions that take place regarding this,” James Risch, a Republican from the state of Idaho, said to Biegun.
“And you’re to be commended for keeping your eye on the ball, and your focus towards trying to obtain what would be a tremendous victory for the American people, if we can get this done.”
Can a U.S. President juggle diplomacy and impeachment?
The last two presidents to face impeachment — Nixon and Clinton — also tried to pursue diplomacy while their political crises raged at home.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon flew to Beijing for a historic meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong. By 1974, Nixon had resigned from the presidency.
But in the intervening time, even as the Watergate scandal dragged on, Nixon continued to send envoys to negotiate a détente with the isolated American adversary.
“There’s no question that Watergate and other factors affected our foreign policy during the mid-1970s,” Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China who was part of Nixon’s delegation to meet with Mao, told NK News.
“I think there’s no question that, even though we didn’t go backwards with China and we continued to have positive relations to balance the Soviet Union, we weren’t able to go much further because of the domestic situation in the U.S.,” he said.
According to transcripts of the meetings, Chairman Mao was fully aware of Watergate — even if he didn’t necessarily understand it.
“Why is it in your country, you are always so obsessed with that nonsensical Watergate issue?” Mao asked Henry Kissinger, then the Secretary of State, in late 1973. “Why should the Watergate affair become all exploded in such a manner?”
Lord was in the room that day.
He told NK News that Mao “specifically referred to Watergate as ‘breaking wind’ — his way of dismissing it as something he didn’t understand, was inconsequential.”
“He couldn’t understand, as a leader of a Communist country looking at a democracy, why something like a burglary and a cover-up would be enough to remove a president from office.”
President Bill Clinton’s State Department also tried to pursue nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang during his impeachment.
That work continued, said Evans Revere, a former State Department official who oversaw the Clinton administration’s North Korea policy, even if the President himself was focused on other matters.
“I never thought once about the impeachment issue while I was dealing with the North Koreans,” said Revere, who later became the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “This was an extremely active period of diplomacy with the North Koreans.”
“And the fact that the president was taking political heat did not deter us, at all, from any of the activities that we were engaged in,” he said.
Hazel Smith, a Professor of International Security at Cranfield University in the UK and Professor in Korean studies at SOAS, University of London, was living in North Korea during the late 1990s.
“There was a lot of discussion about Clinton and the impeachment,” she told NK News.
“The scuttlebutt around the diplomatic circuit was that when the impeachment allegations were made, the North Koreans thought it was all dirty tricks on Clinton, to try to get rid of him, and to bring him down because he’d been helpful to the North Koreans,” said Smith, who is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
In an unusual diplomatic move, Revere even hosted a North Korean delegation at his house in Virginia during that period.
In attendance was Kim Myong Gil, the current envoy in talks with the Trump Administration.
“I don’t remember them making a special point of it, but just being curious about it all,” Revere told NK News.
“They seemed fairly well informed, although a bit surprised that a country as sophisticated as America could get itself all wrapped up over a sex scandal,” he said. “I can’t blame them.”
“You know, other countries are looking at us, like, what the hell is going on in the United States?” President Donald Trump said at a recent campaign rally.
“The fact that the president was taking political heat did not deter us, at all, from any of the activities that we were engaged in”
Does today’s North Korean leadership know what is happening in Washington right now?
“I am one hundred percent certain they fully understand the United States,” Sung-yoon Lee, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told NK News.
“For us, North Korea is a hobby for some, a fascination for others, a crisis to be managed for government officials — but to North Korea, reading the U.S. is a matter of life and death,” he said. “They really study the U.S.”
Former U.S. government officials with years of experience monitoring (and negotiating with) the DPRK agreed that Pyongyang closely tracks the news cycle in Washington.
“They read the papers, they watch the newspapers, they get all the news feeds,” said Evans Revere, the former State Department official.
“Certainly, they have experts who know this stuff, understand it, and can see it,” Robert Carlin, a North Korea analyst who spent more than three decades working in U.S. intelligence agencies, told NK News. “Look, they get CNN.”
North Korea is watching — but will they act on what they see?
“North Korea pays extremely close attention to everything that is happening in Washington,” said Sue Mi Terry, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and former intelligence official. “I mean, every nitty-gritty thing.”
And with impeachment, she said, “If I’m Kim, I’m sitting there going, ‘You know what? I’m going to see how this plays out.’”
Bruce Klingner, a North Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and former intelligence official, told NK News that “North Korea may feel that it’s in the driver’s seat.”
“‘Nice reelection campaign you got there, Mr. President; shame if something were to break,’” Klingner said in an interview.
But he downplayed the effect impeachment might have on negotiations — because, he said, they’re already stalled to begin with.
“The U.S. government will not come to a total halt just because of the impeachment,” he said. “A bigger factor may just be that North Korea has been resistant to meetings.”
“North Korea pays extremely close attention to everything that is happening in Washington”
According to Jung Pak, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and former intelligence official, the DPRK “almost certainly” understands that government processes in Washington already change every few years.
“If I were Kim,” Pak told NK News, “looking at what’s going on with Trump from my perch in Pyongyang, I would be calculating that the president is in a much weaker position vis-à-vis North Korea, because of the president’s domestic problems.”
“And Kim would try to leverage that toward getting the president to agree to another summit — but also with major concessions.”
Winston Lord, the diplomat who met with Mao during Watergate, told NK News that even with the domestic turmoil at home, Washington and Beijing were still able to move forward, to some extent, in their Watergate-era negotiations.
“We made a breakthrough of setting up liaison offices in each other’s capital, which really are de facto embassies,” Lord told NK News.
Liaison offices have also been considered a potential bargaining chip in the Trump administration’s negotiations with North Korea — but Pyongyang’s top envoy to Washington last month appeared to reject that idea in the absence of a bigger, comprehensive deal.
President Trump’s situation, however, may be different from his predecessors’ — because his style of diplomacy with North Korea is fundamentally different.
Instead of relying on his diplomats, he has mainly used just one channel to reach the North Korean leader: himself.
“I would say North Korea would assume they don’t really have all that much to lose”
And if the general public understands the current dynamic — that the powerful, dealmaking American President is at risk of getting kicked out of office — then North Korean leadership likely knows it too.
“I’m sure they’ve calculated that if Trump were removed from office, in the short term, it might not be a good thing for Kim Jong Un, because of this strange rapport built up between Trump and Kim,” said the Fletcher School’s Lee.
“But in the long term,” he added, “I would say North Korea would assume they don’t really have all that much to lose.”
“Whether it’s Biden, or Warren, or whoever, in the White House a couple of years from now, it’s not going to make a big difference to North Korea.”
In other words, while Trump’s impeachment plays out, and the world watches to see if the United States will have a new president one year too soon, Kim Jong Un may just sit back and wait.
“They’re sophisticated enough to get that Trump is in trouble,” said Frank Jannuzi, the President and CEO of the Mansfield Foundation and a former Senate aide during the Clinton impeachment. “They are conscious of when it’s the last year of a presidential administration.”
“They know their leader is perpetual and know American leaders are not.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Official White House photo by Tia Dufour