TRUMP'S RISKY GAMBLE WITH THE NORTH
Nuclear weapons are primarily defensive in nature and represent the ultimate insurance against foreign invasion. This must be the backdrop for the future of Trump-Kim meeting for which the expectations seem to have been hastily heightened and not the much-exaggerated “historic” meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas. No less “historic” meetings were already held twice before––in 2000 and 2007––and the 1992 Joint Declaration for the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula literally stated that “The South and the North shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.”
We are at the very beginning, not at the end, of a long road that may lead to nuclear-free peace with North Korea, but quite realistically may not. Even worse, with the exaggerated expectations now, the Trump Administration has actually increased the risk of a large-scale conflict.
How we got here?
The North Korean regime’s policy of brinksmanship over the past few years has led to dangerously heightened tensions with the US, the use of threatening rhetoric from both sides, and perhaps most importantly, a rare for these years agreement in the UNSC that sough China and Russia on board, led to the imposition of severe sanctions that finally worked. It was their effects on the North Korean economy, and not the brinkmanship policy, that pushed Kim Jong-un to step over the DMZ on April 27. Now both sides, the United States and North Korea, seek to cash in from the situation. But what they want may not be so easily reconcilable.
The US position for negotiations has a non-negotiable precondition for a complete and irreversible denuclearization of the North, termed back in 2003 termed CVID: “Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization”. The US is right. The North has “given up” its nuclear program one too many times before, even blowing up in June 2008 the cooling tower of the plutonium production reactor at Yongbyon. On April 1, 2013, the North’s nuclear program, however, was put back on track, a horrible April’s Fool. Thus, only a CVID can guarantee that North Korea’s nuclear program will never be revived again.
Such a step could prove, however, fatal for Kim, even with international guarantees, and that has been the crux of the problem for so long. The historical records are instructive, and North Koreans pay close attention to them. Back in the early 1990s, it was perhaps still possible to embrace a form of peacemaking idealism, naïve as it may have been, to give up nuclear weapons and other WMDs in exchange for a promise for a bright and prosperous future. South Africa, Brazil, and Ukraine all did it. Later and under different circumstances, Iraq was pressured to do it, and more significantly, Libya was persuaded to follow. It is by no accident that the US National Security Advisor John Bolton frequently evokes the Libyan case, as recently outlined again here, as the path forward for North Korea.
But, it is 2018 and not 1998, and both Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi are dead almost certainly because both gave up their deterrent weapons. Ukraine, too, paid a hefty price for naively trusting the US, the EU, and Russia to safeguard the inviolability of its borders in exchange of returning to Russia close to 300 nuclear missiles that were stationed there during the Cold War by the Soviet Union. In international politics “talk is cheap” and the only insurance policy Kim can have against the risk his regime to follow in the steps of Libya or Ukraine, are the nuclear weapons. The North Koreans have already signaled that a Libyan scenario is unacceptable, because it will leave the regime exposed, and recently the president Trump was publically advised not even to mention Libya with Kim. Which, of course, raises the question why Bolton mentioned it in a first place.
The short-range missiles, aimed at Seoul, that some believe it to be sufficient deterrence that can reassure the North Korean regime, are an option. They are estimated to be able to pepper the area every three-square meter, enough to cause havoc in the South and in the region. By giving up completely and irreversibly its nuclear weapons, the North will also lose its ability to hold Japan, the US bases there and in Guam as collateral. Not to mention that a possible military revolt––one of the many possible scenarios the US military has worked on––makes the control over the nuclear button a necessary secondary insurance.
What are then the options for the North?
North Korea wants a peace treaty and guarantees that the US will not invade. Probably, Kim Jong-un also wants to bring some prosperity––whatever that might mean for him––to his people. For that, North Korea needs to sign a peace treaty with the US, which will be itself a multistep process. First, it will involve a declaration of an end of the war––a condition that can stand alone, without a formal peace agreement––and in practice will formally put to an end the hostilities with the North, but not much more than that. Such declaration is far from a complete peace agreement. But even that step is under question.
The more realistic scenario is that the two sides will have to agree to begin with incremental talks, even if they want to negotiate a massive “packaged deal” that would lead to a more comprehensive denuclearization of the Peninsula. None of this is possible during the Trump-Kim meeting. Furthermore, there are two problems that beset this option.
First, that the all-at-once––what is some call a “comprehensive denuclearization” approach––asks too much trusting, which causes a tremendous Prisoner’s Dilemma for the negotiating sides. Furthermore, for the “comprehensive” approach North Korean’s understanding of what “denuclearization” means seems elastic. Like CVID, North Korea also asks for nuclear-free Peninsula, or NWFZ, a policy coined by Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung in the 1980s.
But while policies both propagate as their ultimate aim the “denuclearization” of the Peninsula they entail diametrically different outcomes. At the current moment, these two positions seem irreconcilable and irresolvable.
North Korea has already agreed to stop the nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and to close down its nuclear test site at Punggyeri (which is alleged to have collapsed recently, albeit it may still be operational). But in exchange, it has already stated that it wants NWFZ and the removal of the US nuclear umbrella and their 29-thousand strong US military force from the Peninsula.
For the US abandoning the Mutual Defense Treaty Agreement with ROK, however, may be a red line that even the impulsive Trump will not cross. Not only such an act will leave the US in an inherently inferior position, and not only it will send all the wrong signals to the other nations with which the US has defense treaties, such as Japan or the NATO members. Such an option will also expose ROK at an extremely vulnerable state not to be able to defend itself against a sudden future change of hearts from either the North, or China.
The “comprehensive” predicament then will require a second option for building trust and making the prisoner’s dilemma reiterative: an “incremental” approach, which should in theory help build trust through step-by-step, tit-for-tat concessions, and continuous negotiations. The problem is that this approach has already been tried twice over the past two decades, and failed, admittedly for a host of complex reasons, but not least because of disagreement on the speed to proceed further.
The second problem is that Trump agreed to meet with Kim without prior preconditions laid down, or at least preliminary negotiations being held to determine the scope of the possible options to negotiate on. A valid question is why he agreed at all?
Trump’s motives for going head-on into this Korean adventure seem utterly domestic, trying to deliver a tangible foreign policy achievement before the mid-term elections, and ease the pressure from the continuing investigations and incessant scandals that rattle his administration since inauguration. It is obvious that Trump sees himself as an unconventional player who, much like his dealings with domestic politics or for that matter with the US allies, will be able to muddy the waters and pull out of it the big fish that no one was able to do before him.
What happens if or when this “comprehensive” approach fails?
Faced with the impossibility to resolve the North Korean nuclear paradox, at some point Trump will probably have to accept that there will be no “comprehensive and irreversible” deal, only an incremental one. He will inevitably have to act on the outcome of the negotiations, returning the sanctions and trying to make them even tougher.
It is doubtful, however, whether the new sanctions will have the same effect as the current ones. China will be now in the position to blame Trump, and not Kim, for the failure, and may use that as an excuse not to play its vital role in the new wave, making them a lot less effective. ROK may also opt out, under the pretext that they want to pursue genuine peace talks with the North and remain more neutral mediators. The president Moon’s preferred approach, even if he calls it a third option, is, in essence, incremental, as also repeatedly outlined by his adviser for the unification, Moon Chung-in.
As a result, the US position to negotiate further with the North will be significantly weakened, and Trump’s policy options, drastically narrowed. Which for a president who is under pressure from domestic politics to perform and deliver tangible foreign policy success, would mean a necessity to escalate the confrontation to even higher tension levels.
Last year, I warned here that Trump’s presidency is faced with a “Gorbachev Moment” and that in his haste desire to prove himself a maverick he is faced with a risk unwittingly to bring the entire edifice down, largely because of his lack of understanding of the complexity of the diplomatic negotiations, and how their success at times hangs on a hair threat. Rushing to meet with Kim, without first determining the scope of such negotiations, Trump shows that he is steadily on such path. With his haste acts, he has already done three major damages to the possibility of a real success and a breakthrough with the North, if ever existed one.
First, he had validated Kim Jong-un as a major world leader to reckon with, regardless of his despicable human rights track record. The American president does not meet with unimportant world leaders, and now Kim is now just elevated to the elite class of leaders, but also fully legitimized. The message this sends to all other potential dictators in the world is unmistakable. Second, Trump has all but officially legitimized North Korea’s nuclear status. Again, the signal this sends to other rogue states cannot be more wrong, think of Iran for example. In a way, the timing for all this could not have been worse for the EU leaders who are desperately trying to save the JCPOE. And, third Trump has now opened a new phase of the peace negotiations, which inevitably include ROK, and China, turning the negotiation process into one that will no longer be either led by or controlled by the United States alone. This last point has additional serious implications for the future, which I lay down below.
It seems as though, the current events may not have been “historical” in any positive meaning of the word, after all. But they are certainly consequential, hiding dark and gloomy prospects for the future.
Liubomir Topaloff, Tokyo