• Moving Ahead Via the Singapore Kim-Trump Summit

    June 17, 2018 // 10 Comments »




    In the end, diplomacy works. And as it always does, it works as a process, not an event. There is no Big Bang theory of nuclear diplomacy. If absolutely no further progress is made toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, all this – the back-and-forth, the Moon-Kim meetings, the Singapore summit itself – is at worst another good start that faded. It is more likely, however, a turning point.


    Only a few months ago State Department North Korean expert Joseph Yun’s retirement triggered a round of dire claims of a “void at the head of Trump’s Korea diplomacy.” Similar predictions were made over the lack of an American ambassador in Seoul. The State Department was decimated (“The Trump administration has lost the capacity to negotiate with other countries,” wrote one journalist.) The Council on Foreign Relations assessed the chances of war on the Peninsula at 50 percent. Reviewing decades of Western political thought on North Korea, it is equally staggering how poorly those predictions have panned out. There has been no succession struggle in Pyongyang, no societal collapse, no coup, no war — and no progress. Until now.

    It is easy to announce a morning after defeat for Trump. But those critics ignore Kim’s ongoing moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile testing, the return of American prisoners, the closing of a ballistic missile test site, and the shutting down of a major nuclear test facility without opening a new one. It is easy to forget a few months ago North Korea exploded multiple nuclear devices on a single day to spark fears of dark war. Negatively assessing Singapore in light of more detailed agreements and different efforts from the past ignores the reality that all of those past agreements failed.

    Success on the Korean peninsula, as in the Cold War, will be measured by the continued sense war is increasingly unlikely. Success in Singapore is the commitment to meet again, and again after that; the more modest 2015 Iranian Accord (which didn’t even involve actual nuclear weapons) took 20 months to negotiate. Cold War treaties required years of effort, crossing administrations in their breadth. To expect more than a commitment to the next steps (did anyone think Kim would box up his nukes post-summit and mail them off?) is ahistorical. Did none of those complaining ever go on a first date?


    Singapore also signals it is time to abandon now-disproven tropes. Trump and Kim are not madmen and their at times bellicose rhetoric is just that. Both men will need to balance conciliatory steps forward with rougher gestures directed at domestic hardline audiences. So there will be tweets and setbacks. But the idea this is a North Korean ruse is worn thin. “Small countries confronting big countries seldom bluff,” one history of the Cuban Missile Crisis explained. “They can’t afford to.”

    The pieces for progress are in place if they can be manipulated well, including a North Korea with a young, Western-educated, multi-lingual leader perhaps envisioning himself as his nation’s Deng Xiao Ping, the man who will bring the future to his isolated nation while preserving its sovereignty.We have… decided to leave the past behind,” Kim said as he and Trump signed their joint statement. There is momentum in Pyongyang, a restless and growing consumerist middle class, living in a parallel semi-market economy fueled by dollars, Chinese currency, and increasing access to foreign media. Couple that with an American president willing to break the established “rules” for (not) working with North Korea. A careful look shows the glass is more than half full. It really is different this time.

    Another important difference this time is the presence of South Korean president Moon Jae In. He was a prime mover behind the notion of any summit at all, helping convince Washington North Korea is a uniquely top-down system and needs to be dealt with as such. His April 27 meeting with Kim Jong Un established the main points to negotiate on ahead of Singapore. After Donald Trump’s May 24 initial cancellation of the Singapore meeting, Moon shuttled between Washington and Panmunjom to get the process moving again. In a climate of constant bleating about war, that was skilled diplomacy played out on a very big stage.

    No nuclear negotiations in history have had such an interlocutor. Moon’s continuing juggling of his roles — honest broker, fellow Korean nationalist with shared cultural, linguistic, historical, and emotional ties, American ally, informal advisor to Kim, informal advisor to Trump — is key to the next steps. Moon himself is the vehicle in place to resolve problems that in the past were deal-breakers.


    What didn’t happen in Singapore is also important. Trump did not give away “the store.” In fact, there is no store Trump could have given away. The United States agreed to suspend military exercises which have been strategically canceled in the past, and which can be restarted anytime. The reality point is that it’s 2018, where the real deterrent is off-peninsula anyway, B-2s flying from Missouri, and missile-armed subs forever hidden under the Pacific.

    Trump did not empower Kim. Meeting with one’s enemies is not a concession. Diplomacy is a magic legitimacy powder America can choose to sprinkle on a world leader. Singapore acknowledges the like-it-or-not reality of seven decades of Kim-family rule over a country armed with nuclear weapons.

    Trump’s decision to begin the peace process with a summit is worthy. Imagining a summit as some sort of an award America can bestow on a country for “good behavior” is beyond arrogant. Successive administrations’ worth of that thinking yielded a North Korea armed with a hydrogen bomb, missiles that reach the United States, and a permanent state of war. A top down approach (China is the go-to historical example) is a valid way forward in that light.


    The easiest thing to do now is generically dismiss Singapore; the North will cheat and Trump will tweet. The harder thing will be to parse carefully what is next.

    The United States must incentivize denuclearization. The 2015 Iran Accord is one example. Another reaches back to 1991, when Washington provided financial rewards for the inventory, destruction, and ultimately the disposal of weapons of mass destruction in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. New jobs for the out-of-work nuclear scientists, too, to keep them from selling their skills elsewhere.

    But more than anything Trump must convince Kim to trust him, particularly in light of Iraq, Libya, and especially Iran, because the core ask here is extraordinary. Only one nation in history that self-developed nuclear weapons, South Africa, ever fully gave them up, and that was only after the apartheid regime disappeared into history and the weapons’ purpose was gone.

    If Trump followed advice from the left he would have stayed home like past presidents. If he’d listened to the right he’d have bulled into the room and said “Lose the nukes, number one and we’re done” and the process would have truly failed. North Korea developed nuclear weapons to guarantee its survival. If the United States and South Korea want the North to give up those weapons, something has to replace them as that assurance of survival. The summit created the platform. The key to what happens next is how Trump, Moon, and Kim work to resolve that issue.


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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Managing Expectations Over North Korea

    June 10, 2018 // 22 Comments »


    There is room for concern in tripartite negotiations as complex as those about to commence in Singapore among the U.S., and North and South Korea. There is certainly cause for optimism — Kim Jong Un reportedly fired top military leaders who may have dissented over his approaches to South Korea and the United States. And the three nations’ leaders have also never before sat down together to work out issues; this is all new.


    But there is no basis for claiming anything short of a developed full denuclearization deal left neatly tied with a ribbon on June 12’s doorstep means Donald Trump, or South Korean president Moon Jae In for that matter, has failed. Diplomacy simply does not work that way.


    And never mind the silliness Kim wants to step aside from global history-influencing issues to negotiate a McDonald’s for Pyongyang. And never mind the speculative Trump-centric psychodrama that replaces geopolitical analysis with twitter-level discourse about the friction that may develop between the “freewheeling American president and a paranoid Asian dictator” (such speculation always seems to leave out the critical third-party to the talks, South Korean president Moon Jae In.)

    One of the more balanced views of the Singapore summit comes from former State Department North Korean expert Joseph Yun. Yun’s February retirement as Special Representative for North Korea Policy triggered a round of dire statements that his absence left a “void at head of Trump’s Korea diplomacy.” Similar end-of-the-world predictions were made over the lack of an American ambassador in Seoul. The Council on Foreign Relations then assessed the chances of war on the Korean Peninsula at 50 percent.

    Ambassador Yun himself is much more a realist than most others commenting on the Peninsula. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he dismisses quickly those who expect some sort of complete denuclearization deal in about a week. Instead, he suggests “success” will include memorializing North Korea’s self-imposed moratoriums on nuclear and missile tests, and opening the Yongbyon nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The North will need to provide a full list of its nuclear sites and an accounting of its fissile material.

    But even Joe Yun falls victim to unrealistic expectations, suggesting success includes a timeline for full denuclearization, and the elimination of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, all by 2020 to silence skeptics. Yun was involved in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000 before North Korea even had nuclear weapons, and wouldn’t have been caught dead then suggesting such unrealistic results; the modest hope those 18 years ago was for follow-on meetings leading to a someday presidential summit. Ironically, then-President Bill Clinton held off, pending more interim progress, the result being that no real progress occurred over successive administrations. It took Moon Jae In to convince Washington North Korea is a uniquely top-down system and needs to be dealt with as such.


    Managing expectations, for the public and at the negotiating table, is key. History provides examples the principals in Singapore should be reviewing. Though imperfect, the 2015 Accord with Iran is a workable model. It focused on specific actions, independently verifiable by the International Atomic Energy Agency: for example, Iran would reduce its uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms at an enrichment level of 3.67 percent. The other parties to the Accord, especially the United States, were equally committed to specific actions over a timeline that extended decades. Nobody simply hoped peace would break out. Denuclearization is far more complicated than just offering sanctions relief over tea in return for boxing up the bad bombs.

    Deeper history offers the painstakingly complex Cold War nuclear treaties with the USSR, where success was measured by the continued absence of war and the continued sense war was increasingly unlikely. In contrast, look to the example of Libya (ridiculously cited in the positive by National Security advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence), which gave up a limited nuclear development program under threat; we are still watching the chaos in northern Africa unfold as the answer to how that worked out in the long run.


    Success is in the long-game, not in facile predictions of failure. William Johnson, a retired Foreign Service Officer who served as the State Department’s political adviser on special operations to the United States’ Pacific Command, explained “If ‘failed’ negotiations obviated further diplomatic options, Trump would need no ambassadors, and no advice from anyone on how to conduct diplomatic affairs. For we have failed on multiple occasions. But diplomacy is often a series of failures, and in the best case, the failures become incrementally less bad, until the least spectacular failure is declared to be success. Diplomacy is a game where the goalposts are supposed to move, and often, to move erratically. Trump needs a plan, with specific goals, each laid out neatly in a set of talking points, not because he will attain those goals, but because he needs to figure out how short of them he can afford to fall or how far beyond them he can push his interlocutor.”

    A process, not an event.


    Success in Singapore may include an agreement to formally end the Korean War (supported by some 80 percent of South Koreans. This would be a massive domestic win for Moon, himself the son of North Korean refugees, ahead of the June 13 South Korean by-elections.) Success will include humanitarian aid from the South, perhaps some modest investments from China, and scaled easing of sanctions from the American side. These are not concessions, but the give and take of negotiations, the stuff of diplomacy, where uneven forward movement can be a sign of strength and strategy. Success might be Kim formalizing the promises he has already voiced in his Panmunjom meetings with his South Korean counterpart. Success also will include keeping Moon Jae In in the center of unfolding events; no other nuclear negotiations in history have had such an interlocutor, one who shares goals near equally with both other parties, and one who can talk to each as a partner.


    If people demand Trump bull into the room and say “Nukes, number one and we’re done,” the process will indeed fail. Wipe clean the cartoon image of Kim as a madman. North Korea currently has nuclear weapons as the guarantor of its survival; that is a starting point, not a debatable one. If the United States and South Korea want the North to give up those weapons, something has to replace them as that assurance of survival. The ask here is extraordinary; only one nation in history that self-developed nuclear weapons, South Africa, ever gave them up, and that was because their purpose, the survival of the white apartheid regime, disappeared into history.

    Success in Singapore will be an agreement to meet again, and again after that; it should not be forgotten the more modest 2015 Iranian Accord took 20 months to negotiate. Success means forwarding the process of building trust and creating an infrastructure to solve the inevitable problems (sadly, yes, there will likely be tweets) that accompany the often herky-jerky path forward. Anyone demanding more than that from the June 12 meeting wants it to fail.



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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    What Critics Get Wrong About Kim Meeting Trump

    March 14, 2018 // 8 Comments »



    Though a scant few months ago people were hiding under their beds certain President Donald Trump was preparing for war in Asia, criticism of the announcement Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been quick. Those criticisms are easily dispelled.


    One criticism is Trump will “legitimize” North Korea. North Korea is an acknowledged nation state. Its neighbors recognize and interact with its government. The United States has negotiated with Pyongyang over some seven decades, from talks at the Demilitarized Zone, to meetings among diplomats in third countries and at the United Nations, to a visit to Pyongyang by the Secretary of State, to quasi-diplomatic visits by then-former presidents Clinton and Carter.

    Meanwhile, the Kim family, with successions from grandfather to father to son, has ruled the nation from its founding, surviving war, sanctions, famine, natural disasters, and the fall of their patron the Soviet Union. Kim is worshiped by his own people as a god, while outsiders have long-formed their opinions about him; he has no need for a propaganda coup. America has negotiated with, and even supported, evil dictators before. North Korea is already a nuclear power, whether anyone likes that or not. The criteria for “legitimacy” appears long met with or without Trump.

    The State Department is gutted, say some. The United States has no ambassador to South Korea. The Special Representative for North Korea Policy just retired. It is disingenuous to claim there is no one left to negotiate with Pyongyang simply because their names are unfamiliar to journalists.

    The current Chargé d’Affaires at the American Embassy in Seoul (“acting ambassador”) is Marc Knapper. His resume shows decades of Korea experience, including as Deputy Chief of Mission in Seoul. He has been to North Korea multiple times, speaks Korean, and is accepted by South Korea as a trusted entity. His Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs, Edwin Sagurton, has spent years on the peninsula including work in the North, and speaks Korean. A third senior American official, Busan consul general Dae Kim, has worked on Korean issues for some 20 years, has a degree in psychology, is fluent in Korean, and served alongside Madeleine Albright during her visit to Pyongyang.

    In Washington, Joe Yun, the retired Special Representative for North Korea Policy, is a loss, but acting in his capacity is Mark Lambert, his deputy. Lambert has significant Korea knowledge, including having negotiated with the North as Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks. There are similar decades of Korean expertise at the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, in the military, as well as among South Korean diplomats, to support Trump’s efforts. Preparation? These men and women have spent their whole careers preparing.

    It is wrong to start with a summit; Trump already gave away the big prize. This argument was old and worn when used to criticize Richard Nixon for his”opening” of China visit in 1972. In the case of North Korea, the idea of holding lower level talks leading up to a triumphant meeting between Trump and Kim is a non-starter. It is Kim who sets the direction for North Korea’s foreign relations, and it is important for him to signal this process move forward with his full approval. It is unlikely North Korea’s lower-level functionaries would be allowed to claim small victories on Kim’s behalf without his ceremonial leadership clearly demonstrated. Previous presidents have held off a summit pending progress, the result being over successive administrations no real progress occurred. North Korea is a top-down system (some say the same for Trump’s Washington), and needs to be dealt with as such.

    The other reason to begin with a summit is there is little of the connective tissue of diplomacy existing between Washington and North Korea, the important mid-level contacts and relationships which ensure the kind of details in peaceful times wedding planners sweat over can get done in the shadow of nuclear arms. Both sides also can also use the push of a summit to press their next level diplomats, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose status is often questioned, onstage with the empowerment of their leaders.

    A final criticism is the North Koreans aren’t serious. This is all a stunt. The North signaled clearly its seriousness to negotiate by sending both Kim’s sister to the Olympics, the first time an immediate Kim family member set foot in the South (Kim’s personal approval), and by sending alongside her the 90-year-old Kim Yong Nam (showing approval by Kim’s inner circle.) Kim Yong Nam has served all three North Korean rulers, was formerly minister of foreign affairs, and as a veteran of the 1950 war, has unimpeachable credibility with the military. The United States has over the years carefully kept him off any sanctions list, ostensibly because he is not directly involved in nuclear development, meaning he is free to travel to Washington. He will be a key player going forward.

    Most of the other criticisms are the same hollow ad hominen arguments – Trump’s volatile, unprepared, unskilled – that led pundits to wrongly declare war with Korea imminent since election day.


    So what happens next? One State Department officer with extensive experience negotiating with the North characterized them as skittish cats; things seem to be going well when something our side didn’t even hear sends them hiding under the sofa. It takes time, and trust, to lure them back out. Also, Kim Jong Un, as perhaps does Trump, will need to balance conciliatory steps forward with bellicose gestures directed at a limited but important domestic hardline audience. So there will likely be tweets, and set backs.

    If the two leaders meet, expect simple things to begin, sports and academic exchanges, the return of one or more of the three Americans in jail in North Korea, an invitation to search for Allied remains north of the 38th parallel. Pyongyang may extend its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing while Washington agrees to limited changes in scheduled military exercises. Such small-scale wins build trust. That can lead to the kind of Cold War-style negotiations that eventually saw the United States and Soviet Union pull classes of weapons out of service to ratchet down tensions. It is foolish and ahistorical to imagine the Trump-Kim summit itself will lead anywhere near denuclearization itself.

    The United States should continue to let the South Koreans lead, as they have in bringing Kim’s offer to meet to Washington. The White House was tactically adept in allowing the announcement of Trump’s acceptance to be made by South Korean officials. Ultimate peace will be made by the Koreas; after all, who has more skin in the game than they do? Leaders on both sides include men and women who survived the Korean War. They share a mindset familiar to Holocaust survivors unknown to most Americans today. They retain strong emotional ties to one another based on the Korean sense of wuli, us versus them, with “us” being the Korean people as a whole regardless of where they live. They are facing their own mortality, and aware of their legacies. This is their generation’s now to win or lose.


    Negotiations are not always an even give and take, and that is not a sign of weakness but of strength and skill. Success on the Korean peninsula, as in the Cold War, will be slow, and measured by the continued absence of war and the continued sense war is increasingly unlikely. Those who criticize Trump’s plans to meet with Kim, and who will pick at the edges of any progress made, should remember diplomacy, the alternative to war, means the messy business of meeting with your adversaries, not ignoring them.




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