The problem is, the United States is nowhere near ready for this kind of high-stakes diplomacy. SUZANNE DIMAGGIO and JOEL WIT point out the risks
Most high-stakes diplomatic summits take place after weeks, if not months of careful preparation and choreography, with every last detail planned to eliminate surprises. Given the two personalities involved-President Trump and Kim Jong Un-and the lack of planning so far, at least on the American side, many national security experts fear Trump’s meeting with the North Korean dictator might prove to be a serious mistake-that is, if it even happens. A failed meeting would badly damage the prospects for future diplomacy to curtail North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, possibly in an irreversible way, and could make unviable military options suddenly appear unavoidable.
We’ve been participating in informal talks with North Korean officials over the past few years, and we see the matter differently: The regime in Pyongyang has its own agenda, to avoid a conflict and to modernize its economy. That’s why we think President Trump was wise to welcome Kim’s overture, even if it might not lead anywhere. Unfortunately, critics of the president’s move seem to have forgotten the constant drumbeat in the media about military options – the latest about a U.S. plan to inflict a “bloody nose” on Pyongyang – after months of tense escalation and dangerous rhetoric. If the summit comes to fruition, it could result in a historic breakthrough or set us on a path that could lead to a peaceful resolution of the current confrontation. For any chance of success, the United States must quickly carry out a great deal of preparatory work, particularly if the date floated – sometime in May – becomes set in stone.
An immediate priority must focus on bringing coherence to the administration’s North Korea policy. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ description of U.S. policy as “diplomacy-led” but “backed up with military options available to ensure that our diplomats are understood to be speaking from a position of strength” is a good starting point.
Forging a robust diplomatic strategy will require good process-well-coordinated participation across the relevant government agencies, from the State Department to the Pentagon to the intelligence community to the White House and National Security Council. This won’t be easy, given the constant turmoil inside this administration. According to press reports, president Trump accepted the offer for a summit without consulting his top national security advisers.
However, the Trump team will not be starting from scratch. Deep in the bowels of the National Security Council and the State Department, there are file cabinets filled with options papers laying out possibilities for conducting diplomacy with North Koreans compiled by previous administrations that provide different roadmaps to denuclearize the North.
A more intractable challenge is the reality that there is virtually no one in the administration with experience dealing with North Koreans since the State Department’s top Korea hand, Joseph Yun, just stepped down. The resulting vaccum puts the United States at a serious disadvantage, since North Korea’s negotiators will have decades of experience working with Americans. Single encounters with North Koreans at a diplomatic event or some academic seminar hardly counts. At the very least, the White House should reach out to experts outside of government who have sustained and extensive experience to learn about what it’s like to negotiate with North Koreans.
Trump now needs to scramble his administration to get prepared for what could be the most important diplomatic encounter of his presidency. A key goal of the preparations should be to set the groundwork for sustained, productive talks while testing the North Koreans’ seriousness. Pyongyang has made the first move in this chess match – Kim has set the agenda and the pace while the Trump administration is in reactive mode. Luckily, that agenda appears to coincide with the Trump administration’s conditions for holding talks.
That is no surprise to either of us, since in our recent informal discussions with North Korean government officials the North Koreans have conveyed a clear interest in starting a dialogue with the new administration, even including the possibility of a summit. Knowing how they operate, the North Koreans probably have planned their strategy meticulously and looked out over months with “Options A, B, C and D” on how to proceed towards their objectives.
The administration needs to catch up-fast. Aside from doing its own homework, Washington should quickly reach out to Pyongyang and begin the process of summit preparation. A smart first step would be a face-to-face meeting – ideally between Secretary Tillerson and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho – as soon as possible. Any process leading to a summit, while involving talks between lower-level diplomats, will require shepherding by these two senior officials to ensure success. While Tillerson visited Northeast Asia on his first trip abroad, his main experience at ExxonMobil was in places like Russia, Venezuela and the Middle East. He would face a steep learning curve in preparing for such a meeting. Foreign Minister Ri, who one of the authors has known for 25 years, is a seasoned diplomat and Pyongyang’s lead expert on the United States and the issues separating our two countries.
A meeting between these two men would have a number of objectives. First, it would be an important opportunity to convey to the North Koreans on behalf of President Trump that regime change is not U.S. policy and explain the policy of maximum pressure while emphasizing engagement as the preferred way forward.
Second, a Tillerson-Ri meeting should confirm the message brought to President Trump by the South Korean envoys who met Kim Jong Un, namely that North Korea will continue a nuclear and missile testing moratorium while talks are underway. (North Korea hasn’t launched a missile since November 28, a fact that president Trump noted in a recent tweet.)
Third, the foreign ministers should establish a process of reliable direct communication, preferably face-to-face talks between diplomats that will be essential to prepare for a summit.
Fourth, Secretary Tillerson should call for the release of the three Americans still detained in North Korea as a humanitarian gesture.
The final and perhaps most important issue on the agenda would be to codify North Korea’s stance on denuclearization. Calls by some experts to drop this objective because it’s impractical make no sense, particularly since it appears the North Koreans are willing to talk about it. Of course, we must be pragmatic given the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and understand this will have to be a long-term objective of any negotiations. (It is worth noting that a North Korean nuclear and missile test moratorium is a first step in that direction.) Secretary Tillerson should underscore that denuclearization remains a key U.S. goal, and indeed, should secure North Korean agreement that it shares that objective.
U.S. officials should expect their counterparts to approach talks with a high degree of confidence. The North Koreans believe they are coming to the table from a position of strength and insist that President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign has not been a motivating factor in their decision to return to talks. Instead, the North Koreans point to the achievements they have made in their nuclear and missile programs. Moreover, during his New Year’s address, Kim declared the completion of North Korea’s nuclear force, which he believes has given North Korea the capacity to deter an attack by the U.S., enabling his diplomats to enter into dialogue with the U.S. on equal footing.
Based on our experience talking to North Korean government officials, we see four areas of discussion that could be particularly constructive as the process moves forward.
First, we should understand that any initial encounter with the North Koreans, because of the years of deepening hostility, will require clearing away political underbrush. Therefore, they are likely to seek agreement on broad principles that will set the framework for the turn away from confrontation to dialogue and negotiation. These principles, many of which can be found in past documents agreed to by the United States and North Korea, will include such measures as respecting each country’s sovereignty.
Second, the North Koreans have said their goal is not to amass a giant nuclear arsenal, but to have enough to deter a U.S. attack, and then turn their attention to economic development. This follows Kim’s “byungjin line” – the country’s national policy of pursuing the parallel goals of economic development and a robust nuclear weapons program – which he first outlined in 2013. If there were to be any major shift toward a deal with the U.S. on the nuclear program, this argument spelling out the need for a “peaceful environment” for economic progress would, in effect, be its philosophical underpinnings. Since Kim has linked his legitimacy to improving the economic situation in the country, this is a potential opening for dialogue that should be fully explored. It offers one of the most promising points of leverage for the U.S.
Third, in our informal talks, the North Koreans in the past described a phased approach to denuclearization that also incorporates specific political, security and economic measures Pyongyang would see as ending the “U.S. hostile policy” that it constantly emphasizes as a condition for giving up its nuclear weapons. That means moving toward reaching a peace agreement to replace the temporary armistice ending the Korean War as well as steps to move toward normalization of relations with the United States and lifting economic sanctions. The time frame for such an approach is unclear, but the U.S. should test the North Koreans’ willingness to negotiate denuclearization in exchange for regime security.
An often stated concern is that as part of this process, the North Koreans will insist that the U.S. remove its troops from the peninsula and end its alliance with South Korea. Since such a demand would be unacceptable and the North Koreans know that, it would serve as an early indicator that Pyongyang is not serious about negotiations. It is worth noting that their position on this issue has fluctuated in the past, at times making that demand, and when they are interested in improved relations, stating that American troops could remain.
Finally, in our discussions, the North Koreans have consistently conveyed a willingness to address nonproliferation concerns in official negotiations, including providing assurances that North Korea will not transfer or sell nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to other countries or terrorist groups. Setting nonproliferation as an immediate priority in talks makes a great deal of sense and part of that process should be to coax Pyongyang to reengage with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will play a key role in any future steps on the road to denuclearization.
There is obviously an enormous amount of work to be done. It has been six years since the two sides had a serious discussion about security issues. Whether the summit is a success will largely depend on if Trump and his team are prepared to move down the road we have presented. There are many reasons to be worried.
The Trump administration has not yet engaged in a major sustained negotiation and has no significant diplomatic wins to show. Engaging an adversary with whom we’ve had scant communications over many years presents especially difficult challenges. A hollowed-out State Department only amplifies the magnitude of the challenges. The appointment of a senior envoy representing the president, backed up by an experienced negotiating team, is urgently needed.
President Trump needs to commit to a diplomatic strategy to manage the uncertainties ahead. This will require a disciplined, patient approach. It will be important for the president to step back, refrain from hot rhetoric and taunting tweets and let the professional diplomats do their job.
If the U.S. goes down the path of negotiations with the North Koreans, a multitude of setbacks and frustrations should be expected along the way. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be the North Koreans themselves. Understanding that for them, the United States does indeed pose an existential threat and that because of that threat, they will be tough negotiators who will go to great lengths not to show any weakness. As one official put it, “We have a saying: ‘You risk your life to save your pride.'”
This article was posted in Politico(USA) on March 10 2018
Suzanne DiMaggio is a Director and Senior Fellow at New America where she focuses on US foreign policy,the Middle East and Asia. Joel Wit is a Senior Fellow at US-Korea Institute and a Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University