Since long before he became president, Donald Trump has been attacking and insulting Kim Jong-un and North Korea. CNN has a new article that’s a compilation of ‘All the times President Trump has insulted North Korea‘.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot there, and includes plenty of tweets. Trump has also made it clear ad infinitum that he thinks negotiation is a waste of time when it comes to North Korea. He even publically undermines his own Secretary of State for suggesting diplomacy, including via this Tweet from October last year:
I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
Yesterday, Tillerson was meeting with reporters while traveling in North Africa. The usual question about the status of the US relationship with North Korea arose. Tillerson gave the response that Trump wants him to stick to. He said the Trump Administration was not close to a scenario where direct talks were likely.
At the same time, a delegation representing the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, was on their way to the White House. Their meeting was not with Trump, but with National Security Advisor HR McMaster. Trump heard they were there and invited them to the Oval Office.
With great trepidation, as they didn’t think of it as a serious proposal, they presented a verbal offer to President Trump for a meeting with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Within an hour on their arrival, and without any substantive discussion with his national security team or the state department, Trump was on board. Tillerson knew nothing about it.
This is one of the most significant foreign policy announcements to come out of the White House in a long time. However, following Trump’s agreement, it was not him, or even his team that briefed the media. The South Korean delegation was sent out into the cold evening air (7pm US time) to do it. Chung Eiu-yong, the South Korean National Security Advisor, spoke from the White House North Lawn.
As part of the announcement, Chung made three significant points:
1. Kim Jong-un says he is committed to denuclearization.
2. Kim Jong-un has pledged to stop nuclear and missile testing in the meantime.
3. Kim Jong-un accepts that the annual joint military exercises between the US and South Korea will go ahead.
Trump did Tweet about it though.
Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2018
Those three things are important. It’s also good that no sanctions relief is on the table at this stage. They are the conditions that have always been noted must be part of an agreement to meet with anyone, not just the president. Because McMaster was part of the negotiations with the Koreans, I’ve no doubt he deserves much of the credit for making sure these conditions were included. (National Security Advisor Chung gave acknowledgement to MacMaster during the announcement.)
However, I also suspect that the South Koreans don’t trust the idea that Kim will ever seriously consider denuclearization. It simply isn’t credible.
Chung spent a large part of the announcement heaping praise on President Trump. It was well beyond anything normal is such a situation. I expect the discussions behind the scene were equally full of flattery. Like all politicians, the Koreans know how to get Trump’s support.
Before long, Vice-President Pence was trying to walk back Trump’s agreement, saying that denuclearization would have to be in place before anything happened. Sarah Sanders said something similar. But Trump is saying the invitation is accepted. He doesn’t want an out – he wants to be a hero. I think he sees this as his foreign policy legacy. He’s going to save the world from North Korea’s nukes.
Officials are saying that the meeting will take place by May. That leaves very little time to make all the arrangements for such a visit. There is an enormous amount that needs to be done to prepare for such a meeting.
Until this announcement, the official Republican position was always that a meeting with the president should be a reward for good behaviour. It should never come early in the process, but should only EVER happen at the end. A country should not get to meet with the president until they’ve done everything the US demands of them.
It has been a goal of North Korean leaders for decades to get a one on one meeting with the US president. The closest they came in the past was with President Clinton 25 years ago. However, the decision was made that the present Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, had not done enough to merit such a meeting.
During the Obama Administration, Obama was mocked and derided by Republicans for saying he’d meet with anyone if the State Department thought it would help. Now, many of them all of a sudden think that Trump is a genius, and this is the right thing to do.
Trump is a president more willing to take such risks than any other. Further, North Korea has nukes. They’re no longer in such a subservient role. Kim Jong-il was begging for food for his starving people; Kim Jong-un is refraining from bombing the US. While conditions still aren’t great in relation to food security, conditions are nowhere as bad as in the past.
This time, we don’t know what the State Department thinks, or just about anyone else. They were all out of the loop on the decision making process. The Pentagon weren’t part of the loop either.
So what does this all mean?
This is a big deal, and could be the start of a new phase in international diplomacy. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Trump deserves any credit for what’s happening so far.
At the moment, the credit lies mostly with South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in, with a small amount to share between President Xi of China and Kim Jong-un himself. One of Moon’s election promises was to seek a better relationship with North Korea, and he’s been doing just that.
This scenario was likely to come to where it is at the moment no matter who was president of the US, and whatever party they represent. The steps that got us here are:
1. North Korea feels very vulnerable. This feeling is part of the North Korean culture. North Koreans feel that the Kim dynasty has kept them safe from the USA since 1953. The version of history taught there is that the US were the aggressors in the war, and everything bad that happens is down to them. They believe they need nuclear weapons to stop the constantly imminent US invasion. Now, they have them.
2. Sanctions are biting much more recently because China are implementing more of them. Previously there were plenty of sanctions. Several previous presidents, including Obama, have got new ones through. The Trump Administration introducing new sanctions is not a big deal.
The problem previously was mostly that China often wasn’t enforcing them. However, they don’t want North Korea to collapse any more than they want it to have the bomb. They had to do something, and did it. Some will argue the apparently good relationship between Trump and Xi promoted that. I think that’s unlikely.
3. Kim arranges for his brother to be killed. Other family members who were still in North Korea and offer any opposition are already gone. Now China cannot work with anyone except him. The North Koreans want the Kim they genuinely worship in charge. There would be anarchy in North Korea if anyone tried to get rid of him.
4. The Winter Olympics in South Korea was always an event with a great deal of potential. North Korea was determined to complete their development of nukes in time for the PyeongChang Olympics, which they did. They have the bomb and they just need to further refine their missile technology. They can do that on the quiet just like Iran is doing.
5. Now that North Korea has nuclear missiles, they feel safe. So, they feel able to begin to engage with the rest of the world again. Thus began the PyeongChang Olympics charm and diplomacy offensive.
The next step is to meet with the US. Without a Trump presidency, that probably wouldn’t be possible. However, I think it could be good, as long as Trump remains Zaphod Beeblebrox and doesn’t try to do any negotiating himself. What Kim seeks is legitimacy, and a meeting and photo op with Trump will give him that. Making Kim feel like he matters is perhaps a small price to pay if it means we get a safer planet.
It’s perhaps a meeting that no president except Trump would take a risk on, and if it comes off, he will deserve praise. He does appear to perform well in one on one situations. Many people say the private Trump is a better person than the public Trump. As long as the meeting remains a friendly photo op where there’s no expectation of proper negotiations, he will probably do a good job.
The deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the World. Time and place to be determined.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 10, 2018
There’s a chance Trump will get duped during the meeting, and we should be grateful for two things here: Trump will not be allowed to attend the meeting alone (as he has a tendency to such as with Putin), and translators will help blunt things a bit. The US currently has no South Korean ambassador or Special Envoy for the the region. Trump is likely to rely on former ambassador John Bolton a great deal. Personally, I don’t think much of Bolton, but he is extremely anti-North Korea. In this case, he is likely to be a good counterweight to Trump’s desire to make everybody like him.
We also have to separate the idea that recognizing Kim is a legitimate world leader means that we are legitimizing his regime, or even how he came to be leader. We can complain about all the people in work camps and say Trump is legitimizing that by meeting with Kim, but that’s unfair.
There are plenty of regimes that the US has diplomatic relations with, and is even allies with, who do some pretty disgusting things. We don’t complain (much) that meeting the King of Saudi Arabia means an endorsement of that country’s treatment of women. We don’t complain that meeting with President Xi of China means an endorsement of their appalling human rights record or outrageous trade practices. There are, of course, plenty of other examples.
I’ve already heard some saying Trump should be demanding an investigation into what happened to Otto Warmbier and demanding compensation for his family too. As much as I have sympathy for Warmbier’s family, this is not the time or place for such talks. Discussions need to be kept non-controversial. If Trump and Kim can develop some kind of rapport, that will be enormously helpful for the future. There is currently no trust between the US and North Korea, and some issues will have to be set aside in order to move forward.
We also have to remember that technically, there’s still a war between North and South Korea. A ceasefire between the two was signed on 27 July 1953, but there’s never been a peace treaty. The US are still in South Korea 68 years after the war began in 1950. If there’s to be a change in the situation, someone has to compromise in order to try and start to establish trust. In my opinion it must be the US. They are in the stronger position and far more self-confident. The only problem there is Trump himself, who is not personally confident and cannot handle any situation that he thinks makes him look weak. (He is also a bad judge of what strength and weakness look like.)
So far, the Democrats are acting in good faith, which is good. The normal practice in democracies is that while political parties hammer it out at home, they largely present a joint front to the rest of the world. The Republicans didn’t do that during the Obama Administration, including in relation to North Korea. So, I was ready for the Democrats to go tit for tat. Thankfully they’ve resisted.
There’s a chance this will be the start of bringing North Korea into the international community. Trump probably imagines he can do that if not with one meeting, then before the end of his first term. But long-term, the US will not get what it wants.
Trump’s supporters believe that North Korea has to come to the decision that there are only two ways out of their current situation:
1. North Korea ceases to exist.
2. North Korea denuclearizes.
There are far more than two scenarios, and neither of these two are likely. The second is perhaps the least likely of all.
Here is what I think will happen:
1. The meeting will go ahead. Trump will go into it believing he can save the world. When that doesn’t happen, the narrative will shift.
2. Kim Jong Un will continue to promise denuclearization without any intention to do anything about it. He will continue to hold it out as a carrot, and Trump will keep believing he is serious.
3. Kim has the bomb now, and he doesn’t need to do more work on that in the meantime.
4. Kim will not give up his nukes. He needs them to stay relevant, and to feel safe. The best the US can hope for is a deal like the Iran deal, but even that’s unlikely. North Korea are not part of the international community when it comes to nukes. The International Atomic Energy Agency don’t visit, and there’s no way to confirm that North Korea are meeting any promises they make.
5. Eventually, the US will have to concede, as they have with every other country where they’ve insisted “they’ll never have nukes” that North Korea can keep their nukes.
6. Kim plans to be in power not only long after Trump is out of power, but after he’s dead and gone. He can wait.
7. Kim will want sanctions relief for every concession he makes. However, he cannot be trusted to keep his promises. Neither he nor his father ever have in the past.
Long-term, the US and the rest of the world will have to accept North Korea as a nuclear power. Kim Jong-un is extremely unlikely to ever use his nukes – he knows that means the end of him and his regime and that’s the last thing he wants.
In the meantime, we just have to hope that Trump’s gamble in meeting Kim pays off.
If you enjoyed reading this, please consider donating a dollar or two to help keep the site going. Thank you.