Trump & Korea: Fast forward in reverse

Everyone is dumbfounded by the US president's decision to meet Kim Jong-un

Trump & Korea: Fast forward in reverse
As is usual these days, President Trump has dominated the news cycle over the weekend with his dumbfounding announcement that he would meet North Korea’s leader some time in the next few months (by May said his spokespersons). We have now become used to the Trumpian approach to politics, which is to create a new media frenzy every day (although he sometimes takes Sundays off to play golf).

Whether by design or not, this sucks all the oxygen out of continuing news, such as the Mueller investigation into possible ties to Russia, and everyday news like the President’s alleged extramarital liaison with a porn star. It is not a new approach; he used it during the campaign but seems to have refined it in his first year in office.

The meeting with Kim Jong-un was evidently decided in the reality TV setting in which the President often seems to make decisions. On Thursday evening, a South Korean delegation visited the White House to debrief some staff members of the National Security Council about their recent talks—post Winter Olympics—with the North Koreans. The President evidently invited the Korean team to his office, and when Kim Jong-un’s willingness to meet Trump was mentioned, he immediately agreed to such a meeting. There doesn’t seem to have been any conditions mentioned. Word leaked out of the White House later, that the Koreans were dumbfounded to hear this, but immediately agreed to announce it outside the White House on the way back to their hotel. The White House has endeavored to walk back this unconditional acceptance by including unspecified conditions, but this keeps changing by the hour.

They were not alone in being dumbfounded. It seems that most of the North Korea experts in the government (those few that are left) and outside were dumbfounded too. This spur-of-the-moment decision, was clearly taken in the way Trump used to take decisions to fire contestants on his reality TV show, The Apprentice. (In January this year, according to Newsweek, the President made it clear that he views being President as very similar to running a reality TV show, with his major concern being about ratings.) The experts were nonplussed as the decision basically reversed the careful ways that the US has historically used diplomacy to manage summit meetings of such importance and stature so that the can have win/win conclusions.
While we would normally think of a summit with North Korea as a good idea to cool down the rhetoric and stop what seemed like a drift to war, it could be argued that the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit could put us closer to war that we were a month ago

The US has a long history of meeting with, and negotiating with, North Korea. Most Korea experts would probably amend Ronald Reagan’s aphorism “trust but verify” for negotiating agreements with the Soviet Union to “don’t trust until verified” for negotiating with North Korea. The negotiation history is replete with duplicity and downright reneging, although the record on follow through on promised assistance and other deliverables on the US side is not perfect. Our excuse is that, in democracies governments change hands and different parties look at things in different ways. Not a great excuse, but I note that North Korea doesn’t even have that excuse.

In this case, because of Trump’s habit of making decisions on impulse, without consulting expert staff, it would appear he has delivered up Kim Jong-un’s most treasured objective, a summit meeting with the US President. It would be the first meeting of a US President and a leader of North Korea in history, and would, at least in Kim Jong-un’s eyes, and those of many others, give North Korea a status and a standing it has never had, well above the pariah status it has had through most of its history. A summit would, as well of course, serve as an occasion to try to bargain for assistance and security assurances in exchange for promises that, given the North Korean record, are unlikely to be kept—almost certainly unless the tightest verification possible could be negotiated. But that will be almost impossible in the brief time before May when the White House says the summit will be held. It seems very likely that the President could go into a summit with none of this nailed down and risk serious failure?

There is no assurance that any of the US desiderata will be attained, and with his unconditional acceptance, the President made the negotiation of such assurances much more difficult to attain. But in fact, we are not sure of what our desiderata are. The administration keeps saying “denuclearization,” meaning clearly, in its mind, North Korea giving up its nuclear arms program and going back to zero. I haven’t heard or read yet anyone familiar with North Korea who thinks that is possible. Expert opinion is that Kim and the north Korean regime are wedded to their nuclear weapons as their guarantee against attempts by the US, or other foes, of regime change.

The fallback may be stopping production of nuclear warheads and their miniaturization, as well as the missile delivery program. But without fail-safe methods of verification by international experts, this is not worth much, and our experience is that such verification is not only extremely difficult if the North Koreans cheat, but fragile as it can be ended unilaterally overnight.

In contrast to the path the Trump Administration has chosen which awards the gold medal before the field is chosen and the runners start, when President Nixon and Henry Kissinger planned for the momentous diplomatic breakthrough of Nixon’s summit with Mao Zedong in China, they worked, planned, and negotiated very quietly for over a year before the summit came to fruition. Kissinger has said that he held a summit meeting with Nixon up as the prize to be gained by successful negotiations—in other words as an incentive to get agreement on an outcome that both sides could claim as a victory. Readers will remember that Pakistan played a very important role in helping the US to get the preliminary negotiation going.

Given the chaotic state of the White House these days, and the lack of personnel in key positions, it seems unlikely that the government, between now and May, can do the spade work necessary for a successful outcome to a summit meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un. For example, most of the Korea experts State Department, which would ordinarily have an important role in such a summit have fled the department. In fact, State in a hollowed-out institution these days. While we would normally think of a summit with North Korea as a good idea to cool down the rhetoric and stop what seemed like a drift to war, it could be argued that the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit could put us closer to war that we were a month ago.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan

Another real war—in Afghanistan—continues with still no end in sight, and no viable peace plan guiding the USG. The death toll continues, of American soldiers and many more Afghan soldiers and innocent civilians. Last week a thoughtful, promising, and I think viable outline of a peace process was published by Richard Olson, the former Ambassador to Pakistan and Special representative to Afghanistan, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In the excitement over North Korea, however, I have seen little official interest. Yet this plan has a real possibility of stopping the war and saving lives. It is a grand design: it would bring all the neighboring countries into the tent of negotiation to sort out and make clear their equities so as to reduce their need to hedge on what they now take to be an uncertain outcome and mitigate their perceived need to hold on to Afghan proxies; separate out the negotiations between the government and the Taliban (which Afghan President Ghani has made a start out with his recent offer); and have a track to work out a schedule of the withdrawal of foreign troops. It is not that a nuclear-armed North Korea is not important to our security, but after 16 years, finally a good idea on how to end the Afghanistan war deserves much more attention.

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.