Trump’s big gamble on North Korea
The US President may yet confound his critics
Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser, announces outside the White House that Kim Jong-un has offered to meet President Trump (©Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Once again, Donald Trump has confounded both his domestic and international critics, be they liberals who style themselves “progressives,” the media, think-tankers, businessmen, or government officials. No one, not even his own White House staff, expected the American president to agree to a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un, the opaque leader of the world’s most hermetically-sealed state, who is less than half Trump’s age. Which is, of course, why Trump decided on just such a meeting.
Ever since he won the American presidential election, Trump’s critics have conflated his tawdry personal behaviour, his outrageous tweets and his domestic policies, with his positions on international issues. Just because Trump’s character is nothing short of despicable does not necessarily mean that his policy choices will always be wrong, however. Certainly, Trump has been at his most provocative internationally on matters of trade and immigration. Yet his positions on both issues derive from his reactionary and benighted view that they are essentially domestic matters, with their international ramifications of secondary importance. Thus he slaps tariffs on steel and aluminium because he argues that he must protect American industry, as if international supply chains did not exist, or as if it were still the 19th century, when America needed to protect its transformation from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Similarly, his efforts to restrict immigration to white Europeans are redolent of mid-19th-century America, when the Know Nothing Party sought to prevent the entry of Irish and southern European immigrants to the young republic, not to mention immigrants from anywhere else.
On the other hand, Trump’s national security policies, as reflected not only in his administration’s National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture review, but also in the actions he has taken, have for the most part not veered too far from traditional American priorities. To begin with, his approach to European security has built upon those of his predecessors. Indeed, he actually has gone far beyond both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in ratcheting up the number, size and complexity of American military operations in Eastern Europe. Moreover, he is prepared to go even further: his budget request for Fiscal Year 2019 calls for $6.5 billion for America’s European Deterrence Initiative, an increase of $1.7 billion over the Fiscal Year 2018 request and nearly twice what President Obama’s final budget called for. This initiative has but one purpose, to send a clear message to Russia; until this year it was called the European Reassurance Initiative, now it emphasises deterrence. President Putin should take note: there is much in a name change.
Trump has also maintained decent working relationships with China, Japan, India and — after a false start with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull — with Australia. His positions on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran likewise do not mark a radical change from those of the George W. Bush administration, nor, for that matter, do his close ties with Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Trump has certainly departed from the positions that the Obama administration took on many foreign policy and national security issues, but arguabley it was Obama who was the outlier, with his frosty relations with Israel, Egypt and the other Sunni Arabs, his cosying up to Iran, and his impulse, clearly premature, to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Apart from trade and immigration policy Trump has departed sharply, though not always correctly, from American accepted wisdom on international matters in five other respects. First, he pulled out of the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, which even Syria finally signed in 2017, leaving the United States as the world’s only non-signatory. It is difficult to defend his decision, even if there were good reasons to oppose the Accords when they were being negotiated. Second, he bullied the Nato allies, refusing for some time to acknowledge America’s alliance commitments under Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty. In this case, however, his pressure seems to be working: unlike his predecessors who complained bitterly but in vain about allied reluctance to increase their military budgets, Trump has won commitments from more allies to meet the alliance’s longstanding goal that they increase their spending to 2 per cent of GDP. Moreover, Trump has now dangled the prospect of relaxing his newly-imposed tariffs on those allies who take concrete steps to increase defence spending, thereby increasing the likelihood that the allies will actually keep their promises.
Third, Trump has indicated that he will pull America out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran deal, unless it is modified to extend some of its sunset provisions and to cover Iran’s missile programme. Originally defiant, the European signatories are now taking Trump seriously, and are frantically seeking a new additional arrangement with Tehran. That Trump has replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who supported the JCPOA, with Mike Pompeo, a strong opponent of the deal, further underscores the president’s determination to secure a better agreement.
Fourth, Trump upended decades of American policy by announcing that Washington will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem later this year. Critics called the decision rash and asserted that the Arab world would react violently to the announcement. Trump has proved them wrong. The Arab reaction generally has been muted; most Arab states are more concerned about Iranian behaviour in the region; and the announcement enables them to step back from their previously unstinting support for what is a corrupt and incompetent Palestinian Authority.
Finally, Trump has also upended long-standing American policy by agreeing to meet with Kim Jong-un. Again, the critics and pundits are howling. They argue that American presidents have consistently avoided meeting with the North Korean leaders because they felt that to do so would simply give whichever Kim ruled the North at the time a public relations coup with nothing in return. Now, they argue, Trump is about to do just that. In addition, they assert that Trump has neither received, nor sought, advice from regional experts, or from those who have negotiated with the North Koreans, leaving him vulnerable to manipulation by Pyongyang. Finally, they claim that Trump is too volatile, and that Kim Jong-un is no more restrained. As a result their meeting could be a disaster.
These assorted nay-sayers do not exactly have a great record of success, however. Indeed, the most vociferous critics of Trump’s move happen to be negotiators and Asia hands in the Clinton and Obama administrations, who did not cover themselves with glory when they were the ones seeking to terminate, or at least freeze, North Korea’s nuclear programme. When Bill Clinton took office, his main objective was to counter nuclear proliferation, but he was frustrated early in his first term when in February 1993 North Korea refused to allow an inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and then a month later announced that it would withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Clinton, determined to resolve the crisis through diplomacy, unofficially offered the North Koreans economic aid and diplomatic normalisation if they would reverse their policies regarding the IAEA and the NPT. When Pyongyang suspended its threatened withdrawal from the IAEA, Washington agreed to bilateral talks with the North. The talks led nowhere.
In May 1994, when the Yongbyon reactor completed its fuel cycle, Pyongyang announced yet again that it was withdrawing from the NPT and ordered IAEA inspectors to leave. William Perry, Secretary of Defense during Clinton’s first term and perhaps the most level-headed senior official in the Clinton administration, considered a military strike against the North Korean facilities but decided against it due to the likelihood that hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would lose their lives in a counterattack. Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter met with Kim Il-sung and obtained his agreement to resume negotiations with the US, which in turn led to the 1994 Agreed Framework. This arrangement called for North Korea to freeze activity at Yongbyon indefinitely, and eventually dismantle the facility. Pyongyang also agreed both to allow IAEA inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities when they became operational and to resume talks with the South. In return, the United States committed itself to oversee construction of two light-water reactors; to join Japan and South Korea in footing the $4 billion cost of construction; and to provide Pyongyang with crude oil while the facilities were being built. Significantly, the agreement did not address the question of whether Pyongyang already had nuclear weapons. It only sought to restrain future nuclear activity.
In 1998 the flaws in the agreement became very obvious as Pyongyang tested a long-range ballistic missile whose use made no sense other than if it carried a nuclear warhead. With time running out on Clinton’s days in office, the administration tried to revive the Agreed Framework, but its efforts ended in failure. By 2002 it was clear that North Korea had never stopped developing nuclear weapons, having continued its nuclear work at a secret facility. In response, the George W. Bush administration cut off the fuel oil that the US had been sending to the North under the Agreed Framework, and persuaded Japan and South Korea to cease working on the light-water reactors. North Korea reacted by ejecting IAEA inspectors yet again and reopening the Yongbyon facility. The Agreed Framework was dead, and the military option, which might have succeeded in 1994, no longer seemed as viable.
Beginning in 2003, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the US entered into talks with North Korea, the so-called Six Party talks. After several false starts, the North announced it was prepared to give up its nuclear weapons while Washington indicated its willingness to pledge not to use military force to overthrow the Kim regime, as it had overthrown Saddam Hussein. By 2009 the latest set of talks was also dead. North Korea simply went ahead with both its nuclear programme and its tests of ever-longer-range missiles. By the time Donald Trump took office Pyongyang had amassed a record of repeatedly making promises it eventually broke, while the US and the United Nations unleashed a host of sanctions that did not seem to stop the North Koreans. At the same time, Pyongyang was wary of American assurances, especially after Nato assistance in the overthrow and killing of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, after the Libyan leader had agreed to terminate his own nuclear programme eight years earlier. Diplomacy as had been practised for the previous two decades simply had not worked.
Trump has adopted an entirely different approach. He initially entered into a war of words with Kim Jong-un, as if the two men were bawling each other out in a school playground. Then, in October 2017, responding to two North Korean Hwasong-14 ICBM missile tests the previous July, Trump dispatched three aircraft-carrier strike groups for exercises with Japan in the north-west Pacific. It was the largest such American force to operate in the region since 2007, and had the potential to launch a devastating air and missile strike against the North. The North Koreans no doubt must have taken note of Trump’s decision to approve a cruise missile strike against Syria, something his predecessor, for all his threats, had failed to do. It indicated that when Trump spoke of military action against the North, it was possible that he actually meant it. At the same time, Trump was reaching out to an increasingly concerned China, virtually North Korea’s sole trading partner, seeking both to enlist Beijing’s support for a new round of sanctions and to encourage China to pressure Pyongyang to freeze both its nuclear programme and its missile tests.
Trump’s approach seemingly contradicted that of President Moon Jae-in, who was attempting to reach out to his North Korean counterpart. In the event, however, the American and South Korean approaches dovetailed. Kim Jong-un employed the South Koreans as intermediaries when he offered to meet both Moon and Trump without preconditions. Moreover, he offered to freeze missile testing and asserted that he did not object to America’s holding its annual joint military exercises with South Korea. These were offers his father had made in the Six Party talks.
Trump’s immediate acceptance of Kim’s offer surprised virtually everyone, including then-Secretary of State Tillerson, but it demonstrated that Trump, having indicated that he would not be restrained by diplomatic niceties, was nevertheless willing to reach a “deal” with his North Korean counterpart. Trump acted quickly to reassure Japan, China and of course South Korea that he would not keep them in the dark as he prepared for the meeting. And he fired Tillerson, with whom he barely saw eye to eye and with whom he therefore would have been unable to map out a strategy for dealing with Kim. In choosing Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson, however, Trump was naming someone in whom he placed considerable trust and who, as Director of the CIA, had more access to information about Kim, and probably knew more about Kim’s sincerity, motives and plans, than anyone else inside or outside government.
Trump’s impulsive response to Kim’s invitation is not entirely without parallel or precedent. At Reykjavik in October 1986 Ronald Reagan, to the consternation of most of his senior advisers, seriously contemplated an agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev to ban strategic nuclear weapons. He might even have reached a deal with the Soviet leader had he been prepared to scuttle his Strategic Defense Initiative. In any event, Reagan’s openness to an agreement led to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty the following year. Trump, who sees himself as the “greatest” president ever, may well be hoping to outdo the Great Communicator.
There is no doubt that Trump is taking a great risk meeting with the wily, but opaque, North Korean leader. Yet Kim is taking a risk as well. Should he humiliate Trump, or should Trump merely feel humiliated, the American leader could lash out and order the very strike that Kim fears. China and South Korea are also worried about Trump’s reaction to a failed meeting, but they are equally concerned about the North Korean nuclear programme. Neither wants nuclear weapons in North Korean hands, and both have voiced their support for Trump’s impromptu initiative.
The greatest danger in any negotiation with Kim Jong-un may well be that in his eagerness to obtain a “deal” Trump may agree to withdraw American troops from the peninsula in exchange for Kim’s pledge to terminate his nuclear programme. Apart from Japan, with whom Trump did not consult prior to his sudden acceptance of the offer to meet with Kim, none of the other states with a major stake in the peninsula’s future are likely to oppose such an agreement. The current leadership of South Korea appears to value a stable and peaceful relationship with the North at least as highly as it does the presence of American troops on its territory. China, which is South Korea’s leading trading partner as it is that of the North (the US ranks behind both China and Japan in trade with the South), could well offer to be the guarantor of peninsular peace in place of the US. Russia would support China. After all, Putin is seeking to restore the old Soviet sphere of influence, which included North Korea, and the Russian president is not uncomfortable with a leader who, like himself, has his enemies poisoned even if they are living in another country.
Given the Kim family’s track record of lying, pursuing secret programmes, and reneging on supposedly solemn commitments, any deal that Trump makes is likely to collapse over time. If that deal involves the withdrawal of American troops from the south, Pyongyang may be emboldened to walk away from the agreement sooner rather than later. Should that happen while Trump is still in the White House, he is unlikely to respond by appealing to the UN, which he scorns, or resorting to another round of sanctions. Instead, he could order a military strike, as he did against Syria, his friendship with Putin notwithstanding. But North Korea is not war-torn Syria, and an American attack, unless it completely vitiates Kim’s ability to launch his artillery against the south, will lead to the bloodiest Asian conflict since Vietnam, with the possibility of Chinese and even Russian intervention. Trump is correct in seeking a new path to resolving the Korean crisis. Nevertheless, one can only hope that Mike Pompeo, whether in his current role as CIA Director, or, if confirmed, as Secretary of State, in conjunction with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, can successfully prevent America’s incorrigible and impulsive president from agreeing to any deal that would reduce America’s presence on the peninsula and thereby actually increase the likelihood of another Korean conflagration.