Earlier this month, the president surprised his senior advisers and the world by agreeing to meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “sometime in May.” As of this writing, the details have yet to be worked out, and the details are important. There is no word yet on where or when they will meet and no word on an agenda. Clearly these issues can be worked out, but for such a momentous meeting, planning already should be well underway in order to make it a meaningful meeting.
There are pluses and minuses to this gambit, as with many international affairs of state. Mr. Trump is taking a huge gamble. It could be argued that no approach to stopping North Korea from developing nuclear weapons has worked over the past twenty-five years or more. Certainly, talking is better than fighting, which seemed to be the president’s preferred option right up until it wasn’t. Maybe it will work. However, if history is any guide, it will not. It will especially not work in getting Mr. Kim to give up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
South Korean envoys met with Mr. Kim and members of his regime following the Winter Olympics. This is a huge diplomatic break-through and is significant in trying to reach accommodation on the status of the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Kim had never met with any South Korean delegation, ever. The talks were described as very productive and resulted in some concrete developments. Among them were the opening of a hot-line between Mr. Kim and South Korea’s president Mr. Moon Jae In. Mr. Kim also proposed talks with the United States on denuclearization, and indicated he would suspend nuclear and missile tests before and during any talks. Significantly, he dropped one of his long-standing demands that the United States and South Korea must stop large-scale joint military exercises. In fact, he professed an understanding that the annual joint exercises must proceed this spring. Additionally, he agreed to an April summit with Mr. Moon and chose the “Peace House”, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas, as the location of the talks.
All of these developments are significant measures of progress and form the background to the meeting that took place in the White House. After briefing their president, the South Korean envoys flew to Washington to brief their American allies, including a closely held invitation from Mr. Kim to Mr. Trump for a meeting. All involved — North Koreans, South Koreans, U.S. National Security aides — thought that research, debate and analysis would take place before a response would be proffered. Instead, Mr. Trump crashed the meeting between U.S. and South Korean officials (Mr. Trump was scheduled to meet with them the next day) and within a few minutes of a mention of the proposed summit, he accepted it. Mr. Trump caused some consternation as he then hinted at the upcoming announcement himself with an unusual visit to the White House press room, even before Mr. Kim and other important allies in the region, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been informed of the decision. Indeed, it still is unclear whether Mr. Kim actually acknowledges Mr. Trump’s response.
What could go wrong?
Right off the bat, Mr. Trump gave Mr. Kim the biggest international diplomatic success of his regime. Mr. Kim — and his father and grandfather before him — struggled mightily to be seen as serious players in their own right and of equal stature to all major powers in the world. Now Mr. Kim will meet the President of the United States on co-equal terms. He attained his biggest goal with no concessions on his part. Perhaps this development is worth the price of admission, but it is a huge gamble as it emboldens Mr. Kim and further buffs up his supreme confidence in his own abilities and instincts.
While we think that the North Koreans are coming to the table because of the increased sanctions and Mr. Trump’s belligerent rhetoric, Mr. Kim is thinking that Mr. Trump is coming to the table because we need to deal with them as a nuclear power. The two views of these vastly different countries are about 180 degrees out of synch due to cultural, regional and political reasons. There is a high probability of miscalculation and misunderstanding on both sides.
On the U.S. side we will be conferring with one hand tied behind our back. There is no U.S. Ambassador in South Korea, no Assistant Secretary of East Asians Affairs in the State Department and the top North Korean expert resigned (many of the other policy analysts and subject matter expert offices are also empty) and we have no Secretary of State. It is unclear whether the Senate can (or will) confirm Mr. Mike Pompeo, the proposed nominee to take Mr. Tillerson’s place, before a meeting in May. Additionally, rumors are rife that the current National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster will depart shortly.
(Intermission: What is up with the way Mr. Trump treats his senior advisers? Is he afraid to confront individuals he wants to remove from service or does he relish humiliating them? Does “winning” mean one has to debase, humiliate and bully people? Let’s just name a few: FBI Director James Comey found out he was fired via cable news; Chief of Staff Reince Priebus learned he was fired via Twitter as he was getting off of Air Force One where he was just with the president; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired via Twitter as he returned from a diplomatic tour of Africa; and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe found out he was fired via an email three minutes before it broke on cable news. I must have missed finding out about this leadership technique in my many years of service to the nation.)
To Mr. Kim, having nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile program got him the recognition that he craved. Additionally, as I have written in this space before, he takes a look at what happened to his former dictator colleagues Gaddafi and Saddam when they gave up their programs developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and I think it naive at best to think that any negotiation will entice him to give his up now. At best, we may get him to freeze further testing, but without knowing exactly how far along his program may be, it might be too late for a freeze to deter him from using his weapons at some point in the future.
And then there is the terminology. Given the cultural differences and mightily different world views, what exactly does “denuclearization” — the administration’s goal for the Korean peninsula — mean, anyway? For us, it is Mr. Kim giving up all of his nuclear weapons, with verifiable inspections and international monitoring to ensure they are gone to stay. To Mr. Kim, at least from past negotiations, it means that the U.S. pulls its military from the Korean peninsula. Which of course, is, or at least should be, a total non-starter for us and our Asian allies. There are other similar areas of concern where words matter but have not, and possible will not, be resolved before the meeting takes place. It is difficult to meet common ground if both sides have different ideas of what is being talked about.
Take another look at the lack of experienced personnel to lead this effort. Compare that to years of negotiations by the North Koreans with the U.S. and other nations. They are reported to be among the toughest negotiators in the world, and even when the West thinks they’ve reached an accord, they are surprised to find that the North Koreans proclaim the opposite and/or quickly break the promises from their side. In every meeting over many years, their negotiators amply demonstrated that they are tenacious, persistent, and determined. They will do everything possible to unwind sanctions and to achieve their goals without making any meaningful concessions.
There is a reason so little progress has occurred over many administrations, Democrat or Republican.
Other area experts worry that we are starting at the top rather than at the bottom. The argument goes that a summit should be the culmination of negotiations rather than the start. As outlined above, the devil is in the details and national leaders are rarely called upon to negotiate specific, very technical aspects of treaties. Their job is to set the tone and resolve any last minute sticking points, not to start from scratch. Given the personalities of the two leaders involved, there is a lot that could go wrong (“Lil’ Rocket Man” vs. “Mentally Deranged Dotard”), should the talks ever actually take place.
Two possible outcomes — one relatively positive and one very negative — could result from these talks. The mostly positive outcome is that no specific agreements come from the summit, but that the meeting of the two leaders “jump starts” meaningful talks that lead to progress. We should be prepared for incremental progress, perhaps starting with an actual peace treaty between the warring factions of the Korean War rather than the continuing armistice. (Many people forget that we are technically still at war on the Korean peninsula.)
The negative outcome could be that both sides see no progress and the two leaders assess the other as “weak” or unwilling to break an impasse. In this scenario, one or both sides could decide that they gave peace a chance, it didn’t work, and the only remaining option is combat — either a renewal of the Korean War, or more likely, a series of aggressive actions, probes, and tests of military resolve that could quickly escalate out of hand.
Big risks sometimes have big rewards. I would feel better about the risk in this case if I believed that Mr. Trump truly understood the situation and had actually calculated the pros and cons of this unprecedented adventure. This gambit has the feel of a game show gamble.
With the president on vacation — or “working vacation” as he prefers — and many of us likewise enjoying some time off and therefore not paying much attention to world events, it is possible to overlook the quickly unfolding events surrounding North Korea. It appears that what was possible “five to ten years” from now may have already happened, or is about to happen.
North Korea has or is very close to having Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with a range to reach the U.S. mainland, carrying nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong Un with nuclear weapons. That should give us all pause.
Given that North Korea is the toughest place on earth to penetrate for accurate information, no one really knows what they do or do not have. However, at the end of July they tested an ICBM that credible experts say has the potential to reach at least to Chicago. This afternoon, the Washington Post has a breaking story that reports that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessed in late July that the North Koreans have the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons to fit on an ICBM. This is no small technical accomplishment and one that only earlier this summer analysts did not think was within their capability. Giving more weight to the assessment, the Japanese Ministry of Defense concluded that there is evidence to suggest that North Korea has indeed achieved miniaturization. It is still unclear whether they have reached the ability to keep the re-entry vehicle (the bomb) from burning up upon re-entry, but they will achieve that feat as well in due order.
To add to our degree of safety, according to the report, the North Koreans may also have as many as 60 nuclear weapons. Other analysts think the number is much lower, somewhere around 20 to 25. A comforting thought.
This past weekend a step in the right direction occurred when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted unanimously to significantly increase the world-wide sanctions on North Korea. This is a noteworthy event as both Russia and China voted for the measure. Most times they veto almost anything proposed by the U.S. involving North Korea. It remains to be seen whether they enforce those sanctions, but it is a positive step.
History indicates however, that Kim Jong Un cares little for sanctions, no matter how debilitating they may be to his nation’s population. In the past, he allowed his population to starve by the thousands under previous sanctions. He just doesn’t care.
All this is not to say that we in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world, is in immediate danger. It does say that the equation changed. As I have written in this space before, such as on 27 May this year, I do not believe that there is anything currently on the table that will cause Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. In his mind, those weapons are the key to his survival. Period. He gives them up, the regime will be destroyed. As I’ve written, all he has to do is look at Saddam Hussein and Moahmar Qadhafi, both of whom gave up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and ended up dead.
Likewise I do not subscribe to the theory that Kim is “crazy” or a “madman” or any other such characterizations of him. That is not the danger. The danger is that he is young, relatively unsophisticated and with little practical experience in world affairs. The possibility of a miscalculation is high. Unfortunately, it is even higher as President Trump talks about North Korea in belligerent terms. This afternoon at his golf course in Bedminster New Jersey, the president said that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.” While deterrence is based on making a clear and credible threat of retaliation, and certainly we need to be clear about the fact that we will retaliate, this type of language increases the possibility of Kim miscalculating the threat from the U.S. It also is not clear as to what exactly the president means by that. However, again, Kim is all about survival, he does not have a death wish. The danger comes in him believing a presidential statement or Tweet and calculating that the U.S. and/or our allies are about to attack and therefore he decides to strike first. Cool heads must prevail and look to the long-term to solve this problem.
There is one other little discussed element of this problem. The North Koreans are all about being anti-American. A quick look at their history, and especially their terrible losses in the Korean War, help to explain their position. They may find it convenient to use a proxy, such as a terrorist group or other bad actor, to use one of these weapons. They could sell a weapon or the knowledge of how to build one in order to achieve two goals, hard currency and an attack on the United States.
When the dust settles, the U.S. basically has three options. Conduct a preemptive military strike, negotiate a freeze on further development of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles or accept the fact that they already have them. All three should be pursued in their own way, but we need to be realistic as to their impact on the situation and understand that there may be no one answer.
Despite the president’s rhetoric, and rightly saying that all options remain on the table, the likelihood of the U.S. precipitating military action is small. Or it should be. As I wrote in May, the costs of a military conflagration on the Korean peninsula, that will surely spread to Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific, are just too high. Not that it could not happen, just that it is very unlikely in a rationale calculus. The one exception I might put out there is an attack to decapitate the North Korean leadership — Kim Jung Un and his cronies — but that is a very risky undertaking. If we miss, Kim will unleash his forces. Even if we succeed, there is no guarantee his successors will not retaliate. Complicating the issue is neither Russia or China desire regime change in North Korea and greatly fear its collapse. They will have a vote — real or in projected reaction — on how things play out. It is nearly impossible to expect a U.S. military preemptive attack to take out the missiles and weapons. They are in hardened locations and are nearly impossible to reach, even if we are sure where they are, which we are not.
The second option is to negotiate. The Russians and Chinese are trying to facilitate those negotiations even as we sit here today. Their proposal is to have the U.S. and South Korea pledge to never again hold military exercises on or near the Korean peninsula in exchange for the North Koreans freezing their nuclear and missile programs. This is a non-starter on two levels. The U.S. will not (or should not) abandon its allies. Secondly, over several decades, the North Koreans have never seriously sat down at the table for negotiations. Negotiations were held in the past, but it quickly became apparent that the North Koreans had no intention of acquiescing to anything. If Kim believes his survival means keeping his programs then there is no reason to believe he will negotiate them away.
The third option, accept the new development as we did when the Soviet Union and later China developed nuclear weapons, is not “giving up.” We have a credible deterrent in both nuclear and conventional weapons that can do great harm to Kim and his regime. He knows this. Additionally, the U.S. has Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMD) in California and Alaska that have been successfully tested. They were built with a regime like North Korea in mind. Additionally the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army have BMD systems. There are additional diplomatic and economic measures that can be taken to continue to contain the North Korean threat. It is not a hopeless cause and a North Korean attack is not inevitable in any respect.
Unfortunately, the world just became more dangerous. As a result, the U.S. and our allies must negotiate this new terrain very carefully. We should not take the threat lightly and it does change how we deal in the Pacific Theater. At the same time, never make a threat that will not be carried out. It results in a loss of credibility, which impacts deterrence, and may end up causing the very act that one is trying to deter.
Our national security team has its work cut out for it. Let’s hope they make the right choices.