President Trump’s North Korea Gambit

Excitement has been building toward a summit at which the President of the United States and the leader of North Korea will meet for the first time in history. This has the potential to end the Korean war officially and bring greater prosperity to the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has been engaging in its usual agitation to try to gain some leverage over the process. President Trump is having nothing of it. He reestablished his position of power going into the summit and has reminded Kim Jong Un that it is the North Korean Dictator who is desperate and in the position of weakness.

Shortly after the summit was arranged to take place in Singapore on June 12th, North Korea began threatening to cancel the summit over US and allied military maneuvers. This is a common tactic of North Korea which presents itself as irrational, impulsive, and dangerous to the world in the hopes of convincing others to take them seriously. Over the course of the past year Kim Jong Un’s regime has tried this tactic out on President Trump. The President has repeatedly called his bluff. The United States is not concerned about an attack by North Korea because this would quickly lead to the regime’s collapse. There is no scenario where North Korea can best the United States in a military confrontation. President Trump went on to belittle Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man” a double blow to the juvenile dictator who is among the world’s youngest national leaders and who hails from a culture that places a high value upon age and wisdom. From the start President Trump has shown he is not to be trifled with.

The letter from President Trump, which you can read for yourself here, called off the summit due to North Korea’s provocations. The President went on to thank Kim Jong Un for releasing three American citizens who had been held in North Korean death camps. Trump left the door open to future negotiations. If this comes as a surprise to anyone, then they simply do not understand the President. Donald Trump is a business mogul who knows how to engage in complex negotiations with business partners. These can be intense and the difference between a good deal and being fleeced can be a matter of posturing and presence. As is typical of President Trump, demonstrated in his campaign speeches, he emphasized the word “summit” by emphasizing it and repeating it no less than three times, maintaining hope for the future. The response of the American media and the left has been disappointing. Many on the left quietly celebrated hoping nothing comes of this peace effort that might be to Trump’s credit.

How must the left have received the news that the Trump Administration is still in ongoing talks with the North Koreans and later that the summit will go forward after all. Kim Jong Un recently attended a two hour meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is many years Kim’s senior and posses the democratic legitimacy of having been elected to office. Following the meeting, it was announced that the historic Singapore summit would go forward and upon the very June 12th date that had been previously set. Kim Jong Un thanked Moon Jae-in for his help in the process and the two restated the commitment of both leaders to the denuclearization of Korea and to peace. Typical of President Trump’s Tweetocracy, he blasted the NY Times for a fake news story in which it claimed a “senior White House official” had told them the June 12th date was off because it would be impossible to make the appropriate arrangements in time.

Goals, Concessions, and Red Lines

North Korea is running out of hard currency reserves and will soon face total bankruptcy. The regime is desperate to seek its preservation through concessions from the west. If the North Korean goal is merely the regime’s survival US goals are more complex. For the United States, regime change is most important goal and preferably reunification with the South, which would accomplish all US goals at once, goals that have been pursued since the end of the Second World War. Note President Trump’s approach of using the South Korean President as an intermediary making it clear that South Korea’s interests are paramount and reinforcing the US goal of ultimate reunification. President Moon may also be attending the summit. Openness to the global economy (for humanitarian reasons among others) is the next most desirable goal. Reducing the threat posed by North Korea follows, the minimum achievable goal for which the US might agree to concessions. If there is are “Red Lines” to negotiations they must be denuclearization and peace, a formal end to the Korean War. Any agreement that would fall short of these goals would not be worth the time of negotiating over in the first place. This would ultimately meet an important US goal: reduced US defense costs. Since 1950 the United States has maintained a significant and costly military presence in South Korea. President Trump is right to keep the emphasis on denuclearization and peace. Other goals can only be pursued in due course and the fullness of time.

North Korean Military Parade (KCNA)

What shape might US concessions take on? If denuclearization could be verified to the reasonable satisfaction of the most prominent western skeptics and a peace treaty concluded, the US would be willing to trade some concessions. First, a limited normalization of the United States – North Korean relationship might be on the table. Reduced international economic sanctions, greater diplomatic intercourse, and limited travel openness could also be entertained. But the key would be the financial situation: North Korea is approaching insolvency, granting them limited access to our financial transaction system and banks would be of great help to them. Perhaps some US aid in the form of food and healthcare, but not paid to the North Korean government. That is not a great deal to offer, from the North Korean point of view, but they are the ones who are desperate. The US could pursue incremental and progressive reforms from there as North Korea meets certain benchmarks and makes needed reforms. This could lead to a general opening of North Korea, achieving an important US goal. The regime will resist free market and open trade policies. As they show a willingness to make these reforms, however, so the US can slowly add concessions.

Peace does not mean the immediate withdrawal of US forces in South Korea, however. US forces might be placed on a slow draw down based on the Defense Department’s opinion of force needs and with South Korean input as North Korea demonstrates a pull back from the DMZ and demilitarization. The less aggressive North Korea’s posture, the less defensive that of the United States and its allies. None of this can happen overnight. This will be a long and drawn out process over which the US must maintain a strong upper hand. At the slightest hint of weakness, the North Koreans will make a play to control the process or sabotage it to their advantage.

North Korea does not exist in a vacuum and the situation must be viewed in light of its larger geopolitical and regional political context. China has long been a defender of the North Korean regime. China’s frail economic disposition has made it difficult for China to continue to offer cover. President Trump has pursued some recent horse trading with China, including access to US markets for China’s largest (state owned) phone company ZTE. As with the tariff situation, President Trump has sought a position of strength and used it to his advantage. It must be obvious to the North Koreans that China is not calling the shots. North Korea will not be able to seek Chinese cover for continued obstinance.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (Courtesy Politico)

A Deep Contrast

The Obama Administration’s approach to the Iranian Nuclear Deal could not provide a sharper contrast. The deal recently fell through as Iran first, then the Untied States, announced the intention to abandon the “agreement.” It is difficult to call it an agreement since the Iranians never actually signed or formally agreed to be bound by its provisions, participation in the “agreement” was wholly voluntary for Iran with no real accountability for deviating, and the “agreement” failed to address other threats like Iranian efforts to develop long-range ballistic missiles or their ongoing support for terrorist and separatist movements throughout the Middle East. While Iran was in a dire state due to crippling US sanctions, the Obama Administration and then Secretary of State John Kerry acted as if the United States needed the deal more desperately than Iran did.

In several sessions Secretary Kerry sat impotently as the Iranian representatives yelled and screamed insults at him. You don’t want to know how the Iranians characterized these exchanges at home according to their cultural norms. Ultimately, the sanctions were lifted and billions of dollars in Iranian assets that had been seized and held by the US for decades were repatriated to the terrorist state, again without so much as a signature on a page. Neville Chamberlain had infamously claimed to have Hitler’s signature on an agreement to avert a war after the Munich Conference in 1938; he had likewise walked away from an agreement in principal with no signature or accountability, only concessions to an aggressive regime. Appeasement like this has a long and storied history of starting wars by emboldening bullies who perceive the surrendering of objectives without a fight as a sign of weakness and begin pressing for more concessions. This will go on until the aggressor presses the matter to the brink of war. The people of Yemen, Syria, and Israel have been the victims of wars backed by Iranian capital since the Obama Administration’s Iran Deal. How many Syrian mass graves did Obama Administration pay for?

President Donald Trump not going to surrender anything. Kim Jong Un and his government will come to the summit ready to make concessions to the US, posturing or distractions will not be tolerated, and the United States will be clearly and sincerely in the position of power. This is the posture that prevents wars by demonstrating the strength and will to oppose would be aggressors (a more grandiose version of the common school yard bully). Put simply, President Trump has mastered the most important lesson of negotiation: knowing when to walk away. That the summit is going forward anyway is proof enough that the President’s strategy is working.

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