Stumbling to a summit
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.
President Donald Trump deserves some credit for taking the risk of holding a summit with Kim Jong-un. Yet along the way, the many disabilities of his decision-making style have been on display, and they suggest the many risks that still lie ahead.
The first problem is a rushed, ad hoc and even chaotic decision making-process. When Trump accepted the invitation to hold the summit — and asked Chung Eui-yong and Suh Hoon to announce it — his staff was taken aback.
The CIA had formed a dedicated unit last summer to work on the North Korean question, and the broad outlines of a deal have been known for some time. The United States would seek complete denuclearization, and North Korea would want sanctions relief and security assurances.
But there was only the haziest understanding of what the North Koreans were actually willing to do. As communications broke down between the two sides two weeks ago, the U.S. team was rightly concerned about getting to a summit at which core issues had not been discussed in advance. Could this cycle of impulse followed by rethinking be repeated between now and June 12? How will it affect subsequent negotiations?
A second and related problem is inconsistent messaging. Defenders of the president like to tout his unpredictability as a plus, putting adversaries (and allies) off balance. Yet this attributes too much coherence to administration strategy. At the same time that the United States was trying to negotiate over the summit, Vice President Mike Pence was talking about the Libyan model and military options, and suggesting that no concessions would be made until North Korea completely denuclearized.
Obviously, these positions were non-starters and probably played at least some role in North Korea pulling back. Again, the same question pertains: will these problems be repeated both in the run-up to the summit and in its aftermath?
The third problem is the raising of expectations, a problem facing the Moon Jae-in government as well. Trump has long been known for favoring hyperbole, and particularly when it comes to his own accomplishments. This has created an additional layer of risk. No one believes that the summit will generate a detailed denuclearization agreement; at best we will get a statement of broad intent.
Yet this could leave President Trump vulnerable to politics in the United States, and from both left and right. Democrats have now turned the table on the president. Although generally favorable toward negotiation, they have also watched the administration cave in on important national security and economic issues. The most recent example: the rush to normalize trade relations with the Chinese firm ZTE, which had been found guilty of openly flouting North Korea and Iran sanctions. Could Democrats turn against a “soft” deal?
And looming on the right are North Korea hawks who have long expressed disdain for negotiations, most notably John Bolton. Could they convince the president to pull back if tough — and even unrealistic — expectations are not met?
A fourth risk is the lack of attention to detail and Trump’s gullibility with respect to autocrats.
A hallmark of the Trump presidency is his unwillingness or inability to engage in the details of foreign and public policy. A host of domestic initiatives have faltered as a result, from an infrastructure bill, to reforming health care and immigration.
To some extent, presidents rely on staff, and informed, competent people are working on the North Korea question; the lack of expertise is exaggerated.
But the president’s mood swings come in part from the fact that he is not knowledgeable. This is a problem because he could easily commit to something that sounds good, but in fact carries significant risks.
Trump is also known for his partiality to dictators: “big men” who can strike deals unencumbered by the grind of democratic politics. Could Trump commit to proposals from North Korea that are unworkable or overly timid? Kim Jong-un might commit to complete denuclearization, but with timetables and quid-pro-quos that extend the time frame far into the future. Is Trump vulnerable to being fooled?
A final problem has to do with the treatment of allies. Moon’s trip to the United States was widely seen as an embarrassment — but not for any failures on Moon Jae-in’s part. The Korean president was put in an impossible position, trying to keep Trump committed to a summit that he himself had called. Yet in the course of 48 hours, South Korea was treated like a yo-yo as Trump shifted back and forth on whether the summit would go forward.
Moon’s decision to hold a second summit with Kim Jong-un was an outstanding diplomatic move. Kim clearly wanted to signal his desire to get the summit back on track, and Moon could play the role that he has long wanted.
Will Trump come to understand the crucial role that South Korea and China play? Is he capable of leading the multilateral diplomatic process that seals an agreement and works toward a broader settlement on the peninsula? Everyone wants this outcome, but whether this president can deliver an accomplishment of that magnitude remains highly uncertain.