RAMESH THAKUR. What Sank the Kim-Trump Summit?

The abrupt cancellation of next month’s planned meeting between the North Korean and US leaders should surprise no one. Developments in recent weeks exposed three factors that doomed the initiative to collapse.    

When US President Donald Trump abruptly canceled his summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, he blamed “tremendous anger and open hostility” from the North. In fact, the summit, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, was doomed for three reasons.

But the Americans concluded that international sanctions had brought North Korea to its knees, leaving Kim desperate to conclude a deal on US terms. Part of the US strategy was to place additional pressure on China to rein in its client state or itself face tough financial penalties from Washington.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who deserves the most credit for recent developments on the Korean Peninsula, unwittingly stoked this misperception by attributing his summit with Kim to Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on the North. This was calculated flattery on Moon’s part. By validating Trump’s self-serving belief that tough sanctions bend countries to America’s will, Moon gained political cover from US foreign-policy hawks unhappy about diplomatic overtures to Kim.

Unfortunately, endorsement of this narrative emboldened the US hardliners now surrounding Trump to prevail upon him to exit the Iran nuclear deal. To Kim, who expects to rule for decades, the reinstatement of US sanctions against Iran signaled that a deal concluded with one administration could be canceled without penalty by the next. To China (and Russia), it signaled the futility of falling in line with US demands against an ally and the pointlessness of engaging in tough multi-party negotiations over several years. To the rest of the world, it highlighted America’s growing international isolation.

The second reason for the summit’s cancellation was contradictory understandings of “denuclearization” – the single most critical issue in the entire episode. The US, believing Kim had buckled under pressure, understood this to mean achievement of its long-sought goal of “CVID”: complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. The North, mistakenly concluding that its nuclear deterrent had brought Trump to the summit, believed it was on the cusp of achieving its own long-sought goal: a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, including an end to the US nuclear umbrella for Japan and South Korea. If it played its cards right, it could even end the US alliance with South Korea and Japan, with all US troops withdrawing from East Asia.

Because the US misread Kim’s primary motivation and expectations, it ran into a third problem – in fact a trap of its own making, from which there was no escape.

The North Koreans made it abundantly clear that they understood what can happen to regimes that pick fights with America without having the ultimate weapon. They were very conscious of what happened to Slobodan Milošević, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar el-Qaddafi. And the example of Qaddafi turned out to be especially important.

After abandoning his quest for nuclear weapons in exchange for normalization of relations with the US and the world, Qaddafi died a horrible death (during which he was tortured and sodomized with a bayonet). And then, on April 30, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, made the incendiary suggestion that North Korea could follow the “Libya model” of denuclearization.

Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan delivered the North’s furious response: “We do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward him.” The North was not interested in a dialogue aimed at a coerced “unilateral nuclear abandonment.” The “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq, which have met miserable fates.”

Although Trump distanced himself from Bolton’s remarks, Vice President Mike Pence warned three weeks later that if North Korea did not make a deal, it would indeed meet with Libya’s fate. Choe Son Hui, vice minister of foreign affairs, replied by threatening a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” if Washington stuck to “unlawful and outrageous” belligerence.

So what happens next? If North Korea resumes nuclear and long-range missile tests, Trump, whose instinct is to escalate the rhetoric of conflict, will come under pressure to respond forcefully. Amid a re-run of last year’s lurid schoolyard taunts – “little rocket man” and “mentally deranged dotard” – Moon will be desperate to rescue a semblance of improvement in relations with the North. Kim could try to drive a deep wedge between South Korea and the US. Japan’s hardline Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is probably relieved that the summit has been called off.

The best the rest of the world can hope for is that, however slim the prospects, a diplomatic process will be maintained, along with channels of clear, accurate communication. A modest goal would be to reach an agreement to keep North Korea’s nuclear and missile program at current levels of capability.

But the US may have cornered itself by rejecting such a cap with respect to Iran. Having made the perfect the enemy of the good in the Middle East, the Trump administration will find it humiliating to agree to a comparable arrangement on the Korean Peninsula. For Trump, the art of breaking deals is more important.

Ramesh Thakur, a former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, is emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. 

This article was first posted in Project Syndicate on May 25, 2018.

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4 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. What Sank the Kim-Trump Summit?

  1. Tony Kevin says:

    Thank you for a good well-balanced review of an important foreign policy development in Australia’s region. Once again, the Trump administration has blown a diplomatic opportunity for peace – as with Syria, and as with Iran.

    For a slightly more optimistic – though less thorough – review of the present Trump-Kim situation, see

    https://www.sbs.com.au/news/trump-teases-summit-with-north-korea-may-still-happen-after-pulling-plug

    It seems from this interesting SBS story that the Kim- Trump talks could yet be revived in some form sooner or later, with Kim now in a stronger negotiating position, after Bolton’s disgustingly thuggish Gaddafi intervention compounded two weeks later by Pence’s stupidity . Kim now firmly has Chinese and Russian diplomatic support, and Moon even better understands the realities of US bullying and inconstancy. . Suddenly, the world understands that Kim is not so much the bad guy, more as the plucky little defender of a small nation’s sovereignty. There are a lot of small nations in the world. I note Putin’s optimism. It may be significant that the sharp North Korean reactions to Bolton’s and Pence’s provocations came at Deputy Foreign Minister level. . Kim himself has not yet spoken.

    The execrable Bolton is lead in Trump’s saddlebags . If he wants to have a viable foreign policy, he needs to find a new National Security Adviser. Tony Kevin.

  2. Thomas Kelly says:

    What if we were to use ‘trade’ as an incentive rather than a sanction. Would not a bilateral or multilateral agreement that included North Korea provide an incentive to at least halt nuclear development. Would not a similar agreement that included Iran provide an incentive to stabilize the anti-Western rhetoric and back off the continuing threat to Israel. Deal making is an art – why not use it to make, rather than break agreements. Where are the real deal makers when we need them?

  3. Anthony Pun says:

    Prof Thakur provided us with a thorough education on the Kim-Trump summit. Despite current setback, most people would love to see this Kim-Trump dialogue continue because it had a good start and promises peace and stability in the region. The US has shown its downside by the Bolton’s and Pence’s remarks which trigger the “hold button” and it reminded Kim of the dire consequence that has befallen upon Gaddafi and the Iran matter that a deal struck today may not be operative in the next administration. The role of China and Russia is much clearer now as they act as DPRK foster parents to ensure Kim gets a good deal. My sympathy lies with President Moon as he risks much in his political life to show some optimism for peace and reunification of Korea. Looks like Trump is not getting his Nobel Peace prize for the time being.

  4. paul frijters says:

    Ramesh,

    I don’t share all your guesses here, but the crucial one must be right: the US has lost long-term credibility in making deals by abandoning the Iran accord. It not only makes it clear that US foreign policy is driven by short-term considerations, but also has made it very difficult for the EU to stick to the US in its foreign adventures. The Europeans have no stomach for making enemies where they don’t have to, just to please a few lobby groups in the US.

    I doubt that the Kim/Trump show is over though and that its ‘business as usual’ from now on. We’ll see a few more twists and turns. I wouldn’t be surprised if NK starts to increase economic ties with SK and China.

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