MACK WILLIAMS. North Korea – managing Donald !

Jun 16, 2018

Amid the avalanche of reporting and commentary of the Singapore Summit one needs to step back to assess just how the Trump’s much vaunted (by him) negotiating style so far has played out . This is not just an academic exercise. It is vital for countries like Australia whose future has become so entwined within the United States geopolitical view of the world . We must have a more informed understanding of the way Trump operates if only to minimise the risk of being blindsided like other close US allies such as the Republic of Korea and Japan have just suffered . We need to analyse not only how successful the Trump “deal” approach has been but also how he has been forced to modify it since beginning to negotiate in public with the North Koreans. At the same time we also need to note some diminution of the influence of the US defence/security establishment within the current administration.  

Trump’s initial approach was to break from the tradition of his predecessors by concluding that the logjam of failed US attempts at direct negotiations with the DPRK had to be broken – and portray this as part and parcel of his avowed commitment to ‘drain the swamp” in Washington. He was also encouraged by Henry Kissinger to recognise China’s key role in any eventual settlement and so forge a good working relationship with Xi Ping with whom he had some other large bilateral issues ( tariffs, South China Sea) in his “in tray”. The linkage of all these issues in his early discussions with Xi Ping confirmed a central intermediary role for China in any discussions with Kim Jong-un. Xi Ping became Trump’s “good friend” and has remained so through subsequent months of negotiations – even when the going became rough and a tariff war loomed.

Domestically Trump came under strong domestic pressure from the Right and the military to stick meticulously to the hardline successive US administrations had adopted – “no talks with the North without significant and verifiable pre-conditions”. At the same time he castigated former Secretary of State Tillerson for wasting time trying to negotiate with the North. This led to months of ramping up the pressure on Kim Jong-un through significant tightening of sanctions and military threat when for a while the Kim/Trump diatribe took centre stage. Ironically his senior White House and Pentagon staff warned him of the huge risks involved in any military strike and urged extreme caution. Urged on by both an alarmed China and Russia, Trump then seized the opportunity of the Winter Olympics to delay a large annual joint US/ROK military exercise ( which would have coincided with the Games) as a goodwill gesture to President Moon (who had also encouraged the delay).This proved to be a critical concession to Kim Jong-un- as it led quickly to his offer to meet Moon and then Trump. The drift of discussion around Washington was that Trump’s decision to delay the exercise was not greeted with universal enthusiasm as it had opened a hole in the dyke.

The subsequent visit to Washington, by a senior ROK official carrying a personal letter from Kim to Trump with an invitation to have a direct personal meeting again allowed Trump to steal a march on his officials. Though the contents of the letter would have been conveyed to Trump well in advance leaving plenty of time for its discussion within the White House he short circuited the ROK official’s call on the National Security Advisor by summoning him to the Oval Office. There Trump said immediately that he would accept the invitation. But he had the ROK official announce the decision at a side door of the White House with Trump’s staff struggling to keep up. Again Trump probably went against his advice of his staff – if only to display who was in charge and unpredictability was his forte!

Then ensued several months of often confused public discussion between Trump and Kim about what each expected as the outcome from the Summit centring on denuclearisation and what it meant to each side. From which the acronym CVID (Complete Verifiable Irreversible Dismantlement ) emerged as the US position and its scope to extend beyond North Korea alone to now covering the whole Korean peninsular.. The arrival of the hardline new National Security Advisor Bolton then upset Pyongyang with attempts to link the demise of Libya’s Ghadaffy with what may be in prospect for Kim. Bolton was corrected quickly by a personal assurance from Trump and sidelined. Trump rather theatrically announced that he would not attend without further concessions from Kim. Moon was employed to try to stitch up things so that it could proceed. All of which left scant time to prepare the groundwork for a successful summit. Fortunately Secretary of State Pompeo had put together a well-credentialled senior officials group led by the former US Ambassador in Seoul – a Korean American – which then went into almost continual negotiations with DPRK counterparts at Panmunjom . As negotiations began to hone down onto the critical issues of denuclearisation, security assurances and sanctions it became increasingly clear that there was still far to go and much that could not be resolved in Singapore.

This alerted Trump that there would be no spectacular outcome from Singapore and the negotiations ahead were going to be lengthy and demanding of further concessions on both sides. He put his own PR campaign into action to confect a story line which would still allow him to emerge with his personal image unsullied from the Summit. Well before the Summit he began conceding in public that there would need to be more Summits and negotiations. Later he indicated that pressure on the DPRK might have to be relaxed a bit to assist in the negotiations process and that the words “maximum pressure” should be expunged from the negotiators’ lexicon. Almost simultaneously, Secretary of Defense Mattis was assuring the public that there would be no diluting of sanctions until complete denuclearisation had been achieved – again not off the same hymn book as his President. As a final ploy before the Summit, Trump claimed that he did not need very much briefing and that he would make up his mind whether Kim was serious about the negotiations or not in the first few minutes of their meeting!

Most commentators agree that the outcome of the Summit was limited and in some respects may have taken things back a step or so. Concerned about his image Trump decided to hold a major press conference ( far the longest for over a year) to emphasise that he ran the show. He attempted to promote all the positives of the communique and answer a wide range of questions to demonstrate how well he was informed on the whole agenda. Unfortunately he often floundered in the detail or even skipped the question. Some of it was eerily worrying – eg. revealing that in their private session, as a real estate expert he had told Kim that from photos he had seen there were some excellent sites that could be developed into holiday resorts!Striving to have his imprimatur firmly attached to the Summit and repeating his track record for unpredictability, he revealed that he had told Kim (seemingly in their private session) that he was cancelling all joint US:ROK joint military exercises and even more importantly he had conceded to Kim that they were “ provocative”. In their catch up US officials and military are not certain whether their cancellation was temporary or permanent.

This has all the hallmarks of another Trump decision which has been made without him understanding the full implications :

  • a very important concession which might well have been stored in the locker for later use a bargaining chip in the negotiations – as was Trump’s comment that withdrawal of US forces from the ROK was not yet on the agenda but implying it would be in the future. What has Kim offered in return ?
  • very serious implications for Pentagon and PACOM strategy in North Asia where emphasis is on combat readiness and force interoperability. Doubtless the candles will be burning in Hawaii and the Pentagon at the planning tables. Some could argue that the joint exercises are every bit as crucial to ROK defence as the token 26,000 forces stationed there
  • the joint exercises are an  important part of  ROK and Japanese defence planning.
  • not forgetting ( as China argues strongly also on THAAD anti missile battery) they play a much more general role in US defence planning against China
  • unsure how much notice Moon received – Pompeo  was despatched there quickly with the ROK Defence Ministry publicly chasing details and ROK Ambassador in Canberra expressing public concern about lack of consultation
  • similarly for Abe who had flown specially to Washington to lobby against moves like this.

This was followed up by Trump’s extraordinary claim on return to Washington that there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea and the world’s biggest threat lay in the world media and fake news. That can only have rekindled concerns in the ROK and Japan that this sentence should have continued “ to the United States”.- saving San Francisco not Seoul or Tokyo. These all present serious messages to allies like Australia about how much one can rely on US assurances – at least under Trump.

The other major looming issue from Singapore will be the retention of sanctions against the DPRK. While Pompeo again reiterated that they would stand in place until the end of “disarmament” Trump himself acknowledged that China has leant back on the oars a little already “but that is OK”. Both China and Russia are already demanding some loosening of the sanctions – presumably of the UN based sanctions over which they have some control in the Security Council not the exclusive US sanctions. It is difficult to see the tit-for-tat balancing of sanctions reductions against DPRK actions not ending up in a relentless grind of negotiations – not only with the DPRK – over which Trump will not have the control he will want.

Things had come a long way since Trump had first faced the North Korea problem. He can claim rightly that he has succeeded where his predecessors could not in breaking the logjam and having direct talks at Summit level – no small achievement. But the processes though which the subsequent negotiations have passed must have been an education for him. This was not going to be a reality TV Summit at which he could exercise his theatrical talents. He was to have a one-on-one with Kim but that would now have to be largely “getting to know you” followed by a more traditional wider bilateral meeting from which a communique would emerge. Cutting deals with so many parties involved and at a time when his domestic situation appears to have been deteriorating has been a very new experience. Throughout all of this odyssey he has maintained much of his swagger and his exploitation of the unpredictable. In terms of winners and losers Kim must be seen so far as in front with apparently very few concessions on the substantive issues except of course his agreement to as yet undefined denuclearisation in an as yet undetermined time frame. He has also had to struggle with some of his advisors especially in the defence/security area who seem to have less influence than they did under previous administrations.

Mack Williams was Former Ambassador to the ROKl, Co-Chair Advisory Board of Korea Research Institute (UNSW), Royal College of Defence Studies.

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