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With North Korea, Are We Back at Square One?

When President Trump walked away from Kim Jong-un's offer, Democrats began breathing again after fearing he would give away too much and called the summit a failure. Republicans tried to make it a success, applauding Trump for toughness in turning down a deal that no fool would have accepted.

The summit failed for lack of preparation, for neither side knowing the other's demands, for not having worked out agreements well beforehand by each
country's negotiators, for not thereby following the usual protocol of the heads of state only then arriving to shake hands, sign the finished document, enjoy a fine dinner punctuated by flowery toasts, and go home.

But Mr. Trump wants to substitute his personal, one-on-one diplomacy, cutting the deals himself in the belief he is a master deal-maker who will charm foreign leaders into accepting his position. Instead, Mr. Kim offered only to dismantle an important nuclear facility, demanding in return that the U.S. lift sanctions in their entirety. All other weapons facilities would be left in place with the hermit country free to continue development of fissionable material and missiles. It wasn't an offer; it was an affront. It came as a rude surprise to the flummoxed Mr. Trump who who said "Sometimes you have to walk away" and cut out early.

So where does that leave us? The U.S. has not even sorted out its own position. At last June's Singapore summit we said that if North Korea commits to complete denuclearization — including its ballistic missile, chemical and biological weapons programs — "the prospect of economic progress is there", a fuzzy non-offer as expressed by National Security Adviser John Bolton that mocks reality. On the other hand, the top U.S. negotiator, Stephen Biegun, in a speech at Stanford this January said the U.S. had backed off its everything-up-front stance and acceded to a staged process — North Korea takes a step, we take a step, and so on. But then days after the Hanoi summit a senior State Department official stated:

"Nobody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach. In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearization of North Korea as a condition for...all the other steps being taken."

And now, just last week, Biegun emphasized that the administration would not lift sanctions until the North completely dismantles its nuclear program and ballistic missiles. Aside from the administration clearly not having a coherent position, that's an offer that counts on Kim Jong-un being the fool.

So in the wake of the failed talks at Hanoi, we see Kim return immediately to a strategy of escalation to make the White House think that they should yield. Restoration began on a space-missile launch site that had been partly dismantled as token proof of a willingness to wind down their missile program. A 5-megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex that has produced plutonium shows activity again after appearing to close in early December. But calling that a retaliatory strategy says those wouldn't have happened had Trump made an offer, whereas one estimate says North Korea never paused anything after the Singapore summit other than rocket and nuclear tests. It is estimated they made six more nuclear devices last year, and never stopped making fissile material. They never stopped manufacturing intermediate range ballistic missiles. We now think they have a prototype for an ICBM. And during the Hanoi talks behind President Trump's back the North Koreans were hacking into some 100 American companies.

So why has the president just announced that the joint military exercises, conducted with South Korea for decades and only temporarily suspended last June, are now permanently cancelled? Seemingly taking his cue from Kim Jong-un he has called the exercises "provocative" and at a news conference in Hanoi gave this reason:

“The military exercises, I gave that up quite a while ago because it costs us $100 million every time we do it. We fly these massive bombers in from Guam. I was telling the generals, I said: Look, you know, exercising is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games. And I’m not saying it’s not necessary, because at some levels it is, but at other levels it’s not. But it’s a very, very expensive thing.”

Retired four-star general Barry McCaffery says:

"We're being played by the North Koreans and President Trump is negotiating with himself, giving up the military exercises in South Korea, calling our presence there provocative. It's just an astonishing failure of diplomacy."

Mr. Trump has thus given up a great deal and has gotten nothing in return, which is not surprising. North Korea had seen signals that the U.S. position had softened, that we would no longer demand even a complete inventory of their nuclear infrastructure, once a prerequisite. Trump saying that in their exchange of "beautiful letters" the pair "fell in love", as he told a rally in Wheeling, West Virginia, may have led Kim to think the U.S. president would accept crumbs in order to make a deal.

At the top of Kim's wish list is a joint declaration of the end of the Korean War. We refused to sign a peace treaty with Pyongyang after the war; it is still only an armistice dating from 1953, which left the North paranoid in its isolation. Last August North Korea said that the declaration must come before it would provide a detailed disclosure of all its atomic weapon stockpiles, nuclear production facilities, and missiles. It seems absurd that a state of war still exists technically, but the U.S. concern is that acquiescence would see the North mount a pressure campaign that the U.S. withdraw its 28,500 troops from South Korea. Why are they still there if the North and the U.S. are at peace? The ultimate threat is the believed North Korean plan of reunification by force of the two Korea's with Mr. Kim ruling over all.

In a congressional hearing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said:

"We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain WMD [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons."

That and his other statements caused Trump to rage against the intelligence agencies calling them "naïve" and saying they "should go back to school!". Thae Yong-ho was a North Korean diplomat who was posted to embassies in Denmark, Sweden, and Britain before a daring escape to South Korea in 2016 with his wife and two sons. Mr. Thae offered unusual insights: "If you want to control North Korean society, you have to make South Korea afraid of North Korea. The existence of South Korea is itself a direct threat to the North Korean system". The North cannot afford modern tanks and guns, and certainly not an air force. Nuclear weapons are the only way to keep the balance with South Korea. Thae confirmed the intelligence agency consensus, saying, “As long as Kim Jong-un is in power, North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, even if it’s offered $1 trillion or $10 trillion in rewards”.

Which asks what will Kim Jong-un do next? He, too, came away from the summit empty-handed, with all sanctions still in place and the Korean economy feeling the pinch. His likely action to pressure Trump would be to resume at least missile testing, and if that happens, we will indeed be back at square one, when "dotard" and "Little Rocket Man" were threatening each other with the Armageddon buttons on their desks. "We'll see what happens", says Trump.

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1 Comment for “With North Korea, Are We Back at Square One?”

  1. Good summary of failed diplomacy by the Trump administration despite the romance between the two leaders. Unfortunately, another example of the lack of preparation by the President and the exclusion of seasoned diplomats or military experts from the process. After two summits and two years of negotiation, we are back at the beginning and Trump has not achieved anything that his predecessors had not managed.

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