Half Empty or Half Full?

In the wake of yesterday’s meeting between Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and Donald J. Trump of the United States of America (USA) it is hard to assess the level of success, if any.  It is likely that we may not know the impact of the meeting for months or even years down the road.

In the short-term it appears that tensions were defused on the Korean peninsula and the likelihood of war decreased.  It is always better to be talking to our adversaries than to be fighting.  As Winston Churchill said in 1954, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”  Should yesterday’s meeting in Singapore lead to further dialogue, that in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It may lead to larger achievements.  Or, it may not.

Given the past history of negotiations with the North Koreans, yesterday’s agreement is less impressive than others under past administrations and therefore does not give anyone solace that the results will be any better.  Here are the highlights of part of the history of past negotiations and agreements.  Note the continuing pattern.  The North Koreans express their willingness to end their nuclear and missile programs in exchange for normalized political and economic relations with the US and the rest of the world.  Deja vu all over again?

  • In December 1985, the DPRK agrees to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but does not complete the inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the international inspectors.  The DPRK linked its approval for IAEA inspectors to the US withdrawing all of its nuclear weapons from the peninsula.
  • In September 1991 President George H.W. Bush announces the unilateral withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.  In response, in November the South Korean president renounces the all elements of nuclear weapons including deployment from other nations and programs to develop their own.
  • In January 1992 the two Koreas sign the South-North Declaration of Denuclearization  of the Korean Peninsula prohibiting nuclear weapons and allowing for mutual inspection and verification.  Later in the year, the DPRK came to allow IAEA inspectors into the country.
  • In June 1994, former president Jimmy Carter negotiates a deal where the DPRK agrees to “freeze” its nuclear program in exchange for high level talks with the US.
  • In October 1994 the US and DPRK adopt the Geneva “Agreed Framework” where the DPRK will freeze its nuclear program and work to dismantle what is in place in exchange for heating oil and other economic assistance and a call for the normalization of all relations between the US and DPRK.
  • In the next few years, the US imposes ever harsher sanctions on the DPRK as they are found to be exporting missile and nuclear technology to countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
  • Late in 1998 President Bill Clinton appoints former Secretary of Defense William Perry to coordinate the US response to North Korean missile and nuclear advances.  The CIA assessed that the DPRK has the capability to reach Hawaii and Alaska with a ballistic missile.
  • Negotiations continue throughout 1999 with an agreement for a reduction in sanctions in response to the renewed inspection of DPRK efforts to dismantle their programs in a “step by step reciprocal fashion.
  • In June 2000 North and South Korea announce an historic agreement to “resolve the question of reunification” of the Korean peninsula.
  • Throughout 2000 envoys from the US and DPRK meet in various locations culminating in the unprecedented visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the DPRK capital in Pyongyang.
  • In January 2002 President George W. Bush includes North Korea in his “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq.
  • In April 2003 Trilateral Talks with the US, DPRK, and China get underway and the DPRK announces that they have nuclear weapons, the first time that they admitted having them.  They tell the US that they would be willing to get rid of them in exchange for “something considerable in return.”
  • Later in the month, Six Party talks are held and the DPRK proposes a step-by-step solution including a “non-aggression treaty,” normalized relations. and the US provides heating fuel and increased food aid, among other things.  In return they will dismantle their nuclear facility and end missile testing and exports.
  • In September 2005 the Six Party talks resume and the DPRK agrees to work to achieve a “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner.”  It will be done in a phased manner in a step-by-step way.
  • In July 2006 the DPRK launches seven missiles, six of which are assessed to be successful.  The UN Security Council condemns the launches and demands that they cease.  The DPRK refuses.
  • And so on, and so on, and so on.  The DPRK comes to the negotiating table, promises to end all of its programs and then proceeds to break all of its promises as the US, the UN Security Council and the world in general condemn them and institute sanctions.

Note how similar the language (in bold, just in case you missed it) is in all of these talks, agreements and protocols compared to Mr. Trump’s announcements as to his belief that Kim will abide by his word.

Kim came to the table because of the nuclear and ballistic missile capability that he now possesses.  He came to display his power as a world player co-equal to the President of the United States thanks to his nuclear capability.  He did not come to turn them over.  The agreements above (and more!) were very, very specific, technical, and based on the complicated and meticulous analytical tools needed to inspect and verify that the North Koreans are complying.

Compare that level of detail with the “agreement” signed in Singapore.  (The full text is here.)  It is surprisingly short and devoid of specifics.  The four main points in the document are (emphasis is mine):

  • “The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”
  • “The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”
  • “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
  • “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

That’s it.  The rest of the agreement talks (several times) about the “historic” nature of the meeting and other diplomatic language.  No specifics.  No timelines.  No next meetings.  Nothing.  Arguably only the recovery of POW/MIA remains is concrete.

In addition, much to the surprise and consternation of our allies in South Korea and Japan, the president said that he verbally agreed to halt all US exercises on and around Korea — or as he calls them “war games.”  Mr. Trump opined that “We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, it is very provocative.”  He also went on to say that he hopes to bring US troops home from the peninsula soon.

Provocative?  Really?  Maybe in Kim’s eyes but hardly in those of the South Koreans or Japanese.  There is a reason that there has been no further large-scale conflict on the Korean peninsula all of these decades. In large part it has to do with our presence and demonstrated capability and will to defend our allies as shown through those “provocative” military exercises.

And what did the US get in return?  A promise to “work toward” denuclearization.  Right in line with roughly three decades of such promises.  There isn’t even a delineation of what, exactly, denuclearization means.  In all previous instances it was clear that the US has a different idea of what that word means as compared to what the DPRK thinks it means.  Whatever happened to “trust but verify?”

Mr. Trump got rolled by Kim.

It was a fantastic public relations coup for both Mr. Trump and Kim.  It looked great, sounded good, and caught the world’s attention.  There was very little to no substance, but hey, it was a PR success.

Surely we can all start over and forget all about the fact that Kim is one of history’s most ruthless dictators that brutally kills his own family members, has 100,000 or more of his citizens in gulags, and routinely starves the general population when funds are needed to pursue his nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.  Water under the bridge.  He took selfies!  He has a nice smile!  He seems like such a nice young man.  Very “talented” and “honorable” according to Mr. Trump.  Give a guy a chance to start over, okay?

But perhaps I’m too pessimistic.  After all, I’m so twentieth century.  Maybe this is a new era with new players and I just don’t see it.

Indeed, I hope that I am wrong.  I truly hope that Mr. Trump’s assessment of Kim Jung Un is correct and that he really does want to do the right thing and leave behind everything that he, his father, and his grandfather worked for all of these many years.

Maybe.

I hope that the glass is half full and that this is the beginning a new, safer era.  Unfortunately we were fooled and played by the North Koreans for so many years that I can only think that it happened again.  The glass is half empty.  With a hole in it.

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