The Real North Korea Summit Is Inside the Trump Administration

It’s clear by now what North Korea is willing to offer in nuclear negotiations. The question is what the United States makes of it.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton listen to President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC, on Oct. 11, 2018. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton listen to President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC, on Oct. 11, 2018. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi this week is a sideshow to the titanic struggle underway for the Trump administration’s North Korea policy.

On one side appears to be U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun and, perhaps, the president himself. They are willing to toss aside decades of U.S. policy to engage with North Korea along the lines of the so-called Sunshine Policy, the approach embraced by progressive South Korean leaders from Kim Dae-jung to Moon Jae-in. The idea is a simple one: Hostility causes Kim to cling to his nuclear weapons, as the cold wind makes people pull their coats more tightly around themselves. But the warm sun can cause those same people to willingly abandon their coats. The idea is that the same approach might cause Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons, or at least his hostility to his neighbors.

Representing the cold wind is pretty much the rest of the government bureaucracy. National Security Advisor John Bolton appears particularly eager to keep blowing. These officials continue to believe that reducing the tension between the United States and North Korea requires North Korea to disarm first. In fairness to Bolton, this has been a consistent view of past administrations, although with varying degrees of rigidity in negotiations.

Over the past week or so, there have been a series of press reports indicating that many of these officials are concerned by how little progress is being made on the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons in advance of the Hanoi meeting and alarmed at how much North Korea is being offered. According to a story in Politico, these officials worry “that Trump, eager to declare victory on the world stage, could make big concessions in exchange for empty promises of denuclearization.” It’s not clear what U.S. concessions are on the table, but possibilities include a declaration that the Korean War is over, the opening of diplomatic relations, and an end to sanctions.

The leaks are also targeting Biegun. On Feb. 25, John Roberts of Fox News tweeted that “Senior Administration Official tells @FoxNews that there is concern at the @WhiteHouse , @StateDept, @DeptofDefense, @USTreasury and @ENERGY that @realDonaldTrump Special Envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun has ‘gotten too far out over his skis’ in his negotiations with NoKo.”

Biegun has gotten too far out over his skis. The phrase is familiar to those of us who lived through the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework during the first year of the George W. Bush administration. Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, made a public remark that President Bush would pick up on North Korea where Bill Clinton left off. There was a backlash, and Powell was made to go on television and humiliate himself, announcing that this was the president’s decision to make and it had yet to be made. “I got a little too far forward on my skis,” he told Andrea Koppel on CNN. Within two years, the Agreed Framework was dead, and North Korea was on the path to its first nuclear test in 2006. (Bolton recounts Powell’s humiliation with an obscene amount of glee in his memoir.)

This campaign comes as a bit of a surprise. For some time, many of us had believed that Bolton and his crowd had accepted that North Korea policy was a loss—and were instead focusing on policy wins in the Middle East. (I mean, Iran isn’t going to invade itself.) But the recent press leaks suggest that Bolton is gearing up to make another run at the engagement with North Korea. And, surprisingly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doesn’t seem to be providing any cover for Biegun.

Of course, Trump is only getting outmaneuvered if one assumes that North Korea’s disarmament is a primary goal of the engagement. To understand the nature of the dispute, it is important to understand one thing clearly: North Korea is not offering to disarm. The North Koreans use a specific phrase—the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula—that refers as much to American nuclear weapons as it does North Korean ones. When Kim Jong Un refers to denuclearization—as his father and grandfather did as well—his statement is aspirational. The best analogy is Barack Obama’s speech in Prague, pledging to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. No one, save perhaps the president’s most boneheaded detractors, believed that was a commitment to unilaterally disarm the United States.

What North Korea is offering instead is a series of gestures that mimic disarmament—symbolic steps that signal a new relationship with the United States. So, for example, North Korea has closed its nuclear test site, partially dismantled a structure used to test rocket engines, and offered to close the nuclear facilities near Yongbyon. None of these steps would reduce the threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons that are deployed for use by the Korean People’s Army, nor do they prevent North Korea from continuing to produce nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that can reach the United States.

In other words, what North Korea is offering is something akin to the status enjoyed by Israel. Everyone knows that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, but Israel does not publicly acknowledge its nuclear status. The analogy is not a perfect one—my colleague Vipin Narang thinks India is a better comparison—but the basic idea is easy enough to understand. North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in 2017 were a constant source of aggravation for the Trump administration and a personal embarrassment to Trump himself. In exchange for a declaration ending the Korean War, the opening of diplomatic relations, and the lifting of U.S. and international sanctions, North Korea is willing to play nice and stop all those tests, replacing them with good-news stories of facilities being shut down.

I happen to think this is worth doing, although we should be honest about the limits of this approach. After all, it means learning to live with the brutal tyranny that Kim uses to maintain his rule. There is also the ugly fact that, when it does not get its way, North Korea has been more than willing to stage conventional provocations that result in the death of U.S. and South Korean service members. The sinking of the Cheonan, which killed more than 40 South Korean sailors, was less than a decade ago. And the apparent mastermind of that attack is the same Kim Yong Chol who has been hand-delivering love letters to Donald Trump. But here is the thing: North Korea has the bomb. This is how deterrence works. If Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Qaddafi had finished their bombs, they’d both likely still be around.

While I would prefer that Trump accept the reality of North Korea’s nuclear weapons based on a cold-hearted strategic assessment of U.S. interests, the situation is what it is. And the reality is that Trump is moved by flattery and the opportunity for a photo-op. If he advances the interest of his nation in the process, that is a happy accident.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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