Shadow Government

Trump Has Nobody to Blame for North Korea but Himself

The president's pivot to "strategic impatience" has made an already difficult task substantially more so.

Donald Trump answers a final question while departing a press conference following his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Donald Trump answers a final question while departing a press conference following his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As U.S. intelligence agencies reported that North Korea showed no signs of giving up its nuclear program and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo found a barren reception in Pyongyang, President Donald Trump indulged in his favorite source of comfort — Twitter. “I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake,” Trump declared, trying to prop up the narrative of success he has sold ever since his historic summit in Singapore with the North Korean leader on June 12. “We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea. China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not!”

But there is no legally binding contract and no agreement. There is only a handshake and a vague 400-word summit statement that papers over huge disagreements about the meaning of denuclearization and what sequence of steps is required to defuse U.S.-North Korea tensions. And while Beijing is being unhelpful, not least because of Trump’s rash trade war with China, in the end Trump has nobody to blame for the dead end but himself.

As many North Korea experts warned, Trump entered last month’s summit with Kim with at least two misimpressions. First, Trump believed his maximum pressure campaign of sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and military threats meant that he had Kim over a barrel, ready to give up his nuclear program. But, in reality, Kim entered the summit from a position of strength because the North had already crossed the nuclear goal line.

Late last year, after a series of successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests and the underground explosion of a city-busting hydrogen bomb, Kim declared that North Korea’s objective of being able to credibly threaten the U.S. homeland was complete. After ensuring his regime’s survival against a possible U.S. invasion, Kim believed that he could force the United States to treat him as a peer and work to loosen economic pressure.

Kim was therefore happy to meet with his South Korean and U.S. counterparts, cementing his newly elevated status on the world stage, and to freeze his nuclear and missile tests. These steps would enable North Korea to play the long game, consolidate its gains, weaken U.S. sanctions, and disrupt America’s alliances in Asia (starting with a freeze on U.S. military exercises on the Korean Peninsula) — all positions Kim knew that China would support.

The second Trump misimpression was that he could use his personal charisma and skill as a dealmaker to charm the young Kim into making big concessions. But Kim, like the other dictators Trump has interacted with, knew best how to flatter and manipulate the U.S. president. Kim used the flashy spectacle of a reality TV summit to blind Trump to the complete absence of meaningful North Korean concessions. Kim even got Trump to mimic the North’s propaganda. In announcing his decision to suspend U.S.-South Korean military exercises, Trump called them “war games” that were “very provocative” and “very expensive,” echoing the language favored by Pyongyang and Beijing.

Having misread his adversary, Trump got played. He signed onto a statement with little there there — and established high, and mutually incompatible, expectations that complicate diplomacy moving forward.

Indeed, the Pompeo visit to Pyongyang highlighted the serious gaps that remain between the U.S. and North Korean positions on the most basic concepts underlying current negotiations. One lingering disagreement centers on how the key word “denuclearization” is interpreted by the parties, which the Singapore summit statement did nothing to clarify.

The document reads: “[North Korea] commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Team Trump continues to interpret this as a one-sided North Korean commitment to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) in the near term (now rebranded as “the final, fully verified denuclearization of [North Korea]”).

But Pyongyang rejects this interpretation. In its statement following Pompeo’s visit, the North Korean Foreign Ministry accused the United States of employing a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization just calling for CVID, declaration and verification, all of which run counter to the spirit of the Singapore summit meeting and talks.” Indeed, North Korea has long viewed denuclearization as a mutual obligation for all parties on the Korean Peninsula, including the United States. Kim thus sees the North’s commitment as part of a multiparty, reciprocal move toward disarmament — a long-term process that will likely never culminate.

Another gap is over the sequencing of steps necessary to resolve the current crisis. The Trump administration apparently wants North Korea to fully declare all of its nuclear, other weapons of mass destruction, and missile capabilities; agree to a road map, timetable, and verification mechanism for denuclearization; and substantially dismantle its program — all before the United States offers a peace treaty or economic concessions.

North Korea, however, seems to expect steps toward normalization and a peace treaty up front, before moving toward denuclearization. And, as the North Korean Foreign Ministry points out, this ordering is actually better supported by the sequence outlined in the Singapore summit document Trump signed, which lists denuclearization third. As a confidence-building measure, North Korea also says it is prepared to dismantle an ICBM engine facility. Following these moves, Pyongyang has described a reciprocal, step-by-step process in which every move the North makes is met by additional U.S. security assurances, the relaxation of sanctions, and economic aid, a course that both South Korea and China endorse.

Trump has hinted at his desire for a Nobel Peace Prize. He has also made his disdain for alliances clear and threatened to remove U.S. forces from South Korea to punish Seoul for unfair trade practices. It is therefore possible that Kim believes Trump will eventually acquiesce to a scenario in which the two sides agree to an early peace treaty and the withdrawal of some (or all) U.S. troops from the peninsula in exchange for reductions in the North’s ability to directly threaten the U.S. homeland.

After all, during the 2016 campaign, Trump said he was not overly concerned with North Korea’s nuclear weapons so long as they only threatened South Korea and Japan. It was only after Trump won the presidency and was briefed on the advancements in the North’s ICBM program that he issued his Twitter red line and began making military threats against Pyongyang. Once an ostensible peace has been achieved and the homeland threat reduced, Kim may think he can string out the rest of the process — engaging in lengthy denuclearization talks and making minor reductions in North Korea’s program in exchange for U.S. economic concessions. The net result: Pyongyang would break its isolation, strengthen its position on the peninsula, and erode U.S. alliances in the region.

Typically, denuclearization and sequencing are precisely the kinds of issues that months- or yearslong talks at the working level would have aimed to address before leaders met. But Trump thought he knew better, dismissed the need for extensive preparation, and walked straight into the traps experts have been warning of for years.

Based on my time in the Obama White House, I am under no illusions that solving the North Korean nuclear crisis will be easy. No administration since the end of the Cold War has managed to do so. Addressing the North Korean threat was always going to require a long, hard slog — grinding bilateral and multilateral talks, negotiated freezes, confidence-building steps, and agreements to gradually roll back Pyongyang’s program all the while bolstering the U.S. deterrent against North Korean aggression and strengthening regional alliances to manage and mitigate interim risks. This is what the Obama administration meant by “strategic patience.” And we knew there was no guarantee of success.

But Trump’s pivot to “strategic impatience” — agreeing to a summit before the time was ripe and before sufficient preparation was completed — has made an already difficult task substantially more so. Both Trump and Kim think they know what the Singapore statement really means and have said so publicly. But they don’t actually agree.

And as lower-level diplomats meet to do the actual work of addressing the huge chasms that remain, any perceived step back from these positions now creates higher political costs for both leaders, making an ultimate agreement more difficult and a diplomatic breakdown more likely. For now, both Trump and Kim may be trying to keep their personal bond intact. But that won’t last long if actual events continue to confound their expectations for how this will all end.

So Trump has boxed himself in. He can take a deal that is bad for the United States and its allies (although one he may be perversely attracted to given his disdain for existing relationships). Or he can play hard ball and demand near-term North Korean capitulation to maximalist demands, a recipe for diplomatic collapse given the centrality of nuclear weapons to Kim’s survival.

Alternatively, he could take a patient middle path that sustains international pressure and gradually incentivizes North Korea to declare and verifiably dismantle its nuclear and missile programs over a long time frame. But such an approach seems at odds with Trump’s temperament. And, as Victor Cha notes, it would require high levels of cooperation from China — cooperation that is not likely to be forthcoming given Trump’s gratuitous trade war with Beijing.

If talks collapse, Trump has no obvious Plan B other than a return to “Little Rocket Man” taunts and “fire and fury” threats. Given the cataclysmic consequences of war, we should all hope that the administration manages to get things back on track and keep the prospects for a peaceful solution alive. But at the moment, it is hard to see how the president can escape the dangerous corner he has painted himself into.

Colin H. Kahl is the inaugural Steven C. Hazy senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies' Center for International Security and Cooperation and a strategic consultant at the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.

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