by James Trottier
March 12, 2018
The announcement that Donald Trump had agreed to a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un caught everyone, including the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, South Korean envoys and North Korea, by surprise. It was classic Trump: Act first and think later.
His decision was driven by Trump’s impulsive personality, a reality TV view of the world, an obsession with doing the opposite of past presidents and the conviction that he is an unmatched deal-maker. This was not part of a long-term strategy. On the contrary, Trump’s North Korea policy is improvised and consists of threats, military preparations and punishing North Korea rather than preparations for negotiations. The U.S. is now scrambling to find officials in the depleted State Department with the required expertise to prepare for the Summit.
By contrast, the Summit is the culmination of a long-term strategy by Kim Jong Un to develop his nuclear arsenal, withstand sanctions and come to the negotiating table with a strong hand.
In agreeing to the meeting, Trump upended longstanding U.S. policy and diplomatic practice. First, the U.S. has insisted for years that it would not talk to North Korea unless North Korea made a verifiable commitment to irreversible denuclearization. In this case, all North Korea has agreed to is what it has proposed to past administrations: a vague willingness to discuss denuclearization in return for an undefined security guarantee for North Korea.
Second, the longtime U.S. position was reiterated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just hours before the announcement of the Summit when he said that it would be premature to consider talks in the absence of such a verifiable commitment.
Third, U.S. diplomatic practice is that before any negotiations, there are exhaustive inter-agency consultations followed by development of a detailed negotiating plan. In the case of the Iran agreement, the U.S. negotiating document ran to 100 pages. In this case, the U.S. will be hard-pressed to develop a detailed negotiating position prior to the Summit, let alone get Trump to follow it. By contrast, Kim can be expected to come to the talks with a well-formulated negotiating position.
Fourth, preliminary diplomatic negotiations are always held at officials level with any presidential involvement kept in reserve as a valuable bargaining chip. In this case, Trump has given away a major card without receiving anything in return. Moreover, preliminary discussions lessen the risk of counter-productive failure of talks at the highest level.
Fifth, Trump has provided North Korea and Kim personally with a significant diplomatic triumph and political legitimacy, as North Korea has long sought such a meeting, in vain.
Sixth, members of his administration have realized the risks of his impulsive decision and have tried to walk it back and re-impose pre-conditions. However, Trump has undermined their efforts insisting the meeting will go ahead, time and place to be determined.
There are a variety of possible outcomes for the Summit:
1) The “do no harm” scenario is that the two sides have an amicable photo-op and agree on further discussions at the level of officials.
2) Driven by Trump’s desire to make a deal, Kim’s determination to maintain his nuclear arsenal and Kim’s satisfaction that he has achieved a sufficient deterrent status, the above scenario could be accompanied by an agreement to continue the suspension of tests, perhaps in return for the easing of sanctions.
3) Seeking a deal, ignoring the advice of his experts and believing he had received some sort of denuclearization commitment from Kim, Trump could entertain North Korean demands for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. This is an unlikely result and one that would alarm South Korea, Japan and U.S. experts.
4) Kim could make a general commitment to denuclearize. A genuine commitment is very unlikely and very difficult to verify. Huge and politically unacceptable concessions by the U.S. would be demanded, including withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula, renunciation of the mutual defence treaty with South Korea, complete lifting of sanctions, economic assistance and the conclusion of a peace treaty.
5) The meeting could swiftly flounder if Trump insists that denuclearization is the only purpose of the talks and refuses to entertain lifting of sanctions or security guarantees for North Korea.
6) The worst-case scenario would be a meeting marked by insults and threats, followed by military preparations. This would alarm South Korea and Japan and is why such a Summit should be avoided in the first place.
Given the unpredictability of the two leaders and their past history, it’s still a question whether the Summit will actually occur. If it does, the final result could be some combination of the above. South Korea and Japan fear both inappropriate concessions by Trump and a breakdown in talks leading to renewed emphasis on military options. Kim will try to manipulate Trump using charm, flattery and appeals to his vanity, tactics that have proven successful for other leaders dealing with Trump.
Various venues have been mentioned for the Summit including Switzerland, China, Russia, the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) and Pyongyang. The most likely venue is the DMZ, a neutral area easily accessible by both leaders. Both sides would probably be reluctant to give the appearance that China or Russia would in some way influence the result and Switzerland is too far from Pyongyang. Moreover Kim has never left North Korea as leader and it is doubtful he would start now.
From a U.S. perspective, the worst venue would be Pyongyang itself, giving North Korea a major home field advantage, the ability to shape the agenda and to put on a show for the easily impressed president. Of course, opposition by his own experts could make Pyongyang seem more attractive to the contrarian Trump.
Ultimately, the issue is not whether there should be talks between the U.S. and North Korea; in fact, there should be. The U.S. position attaching the pre-condition of verifiable denuclearization before talks was always unrealistic as the North Koreans were never going to agree to that.
The issue is whether the U.S .is prepared for talks and whether Donald Trump, unversed in the facts and subtleties of the Korean Peninsula, should be the one to conduct such talks. The answer is no.
James Trottier is a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former career Canadian diplomat who directed the political/economic (diplomatic) programs at the Canadian Embassies in South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines and also served at the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN in New York. He was accredited to North Korea and led four Canadian diplomatic delegations to North Korea in 2015 and 2016 and has served as a diplomatic liaison officer to US/UN Forces in South Korea. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org