Trump vs. Kim
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
U.S. President Donald Trump is sly. Announcing a second North Korea-U.S. summit for Feb. 27 and 28, he said the second summit would go just as well as the first one. It suits Trump to be confident. But he didn’t do well in the first Singapore summit. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in an interview with Salon on Feb. 4, “I was asked whether the Singapore summit was a win-win or a ‘Kim win.’ It was a ‘Kim win.’” In 2000, Albright met with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. She knows something about North Korea.
Trump lets his opinions out freely. Twitter is a medium he likes to use. “I look forward to seeing Chairman Kim & advancing the cause of peace!” he tweeted. The expression has an association effect. The “cause” triggers curiosity. But the audience doesn’t seem to be impressed this time around. On the second Vietnam summit, skepticism is strong. 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is cynical. “High hopes, but no particular expectation,” he said. Distrust of Trump’s denuclearization strategy is widespread.
Trump’s negotiation tactic was frustrated. He has the self-crafted image of a master negotiator. He was skilled in the New York real estate market, but he is no match against Kim. The basis of North Korea’s negotiating style is shamelessness. Shamelessness gives one a competitive edge in diplomacy. That is accompanied by unexpectedness, variation and delays. Trump has these arrows in his quiver as well, but North Korea is a notch above.
North Korea’s method of handling of interlocutors is well known. Chuck Downs wrote in “Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy” that North Korea “manages negotiations so that its adversaries experience stages of optimism, disillusionment and disappointment.” U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun is in charge of preparing for the second summit. He must have experienced the North Korean style of bargaining by now.
The location of the summit is a sensitive element. North Korea wanted , Vietnam, for a reason. represents resistance: it is the capital of Vietnam, which drove out a powerful United States. There are graves of North Korean soldiers in Bac Giang Province. During the Vietnam War, North Korea sent air force pilots. North Korea wants to use symbolic memories. It was a clever stage-setting. North Korea got an advantage in selecting the site.
The United States wanted Da Nang, a tourism and industrial city. Vietnam’s economic development was boosted by reconciliation with the United States. Trump wanted to highlight the historic significance of that turnaround. He wanted to project a rosy future. “North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, will become a great Economic Powerhouse […] North Korea will become a different kind of Rocket — an Economic one!” he exclaimed. But Pyongyang’s real interest is different.
North Korea’s role model is Pakistan, pursuing economic development as a nuclear state. Pakistan experienced U.S. sanctions, removal and assistance. North Korea uses brinkmanship. Nuclear programs are complicated things to deal with. Freezing, abandonment, reporting and verification of nuclear facilities, nuclear warheads, short, mid- and long-range missiles and nuclear weapons go well with North Korea’s style. Complete abandonment of the nuclear program will be long and hard.
The United States lowered its expectations: complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization has grown distant. Its realistic goal is a small deal. North Korea may address one or two issues in exchange for rewards from the United States. North Korea’s suggestion that it could abandon the Yongbyon nuclear facility should not be taken seriously. That idea has been on its agenda for 26 years.
The priority of the United States is the safety of its mainland. So it wants to get rid of long-range missiles first.
What will happen if a small deal is actually made? North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons and short and mid-range missiles will remain. Nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker said the number of nuclear weapons in North Korea is 37 at the most. They pose a fearful threat to South Korea. Trump’s “America First” approach will be branded as abandoning its ally. Albright said she was worried about Trump being flattered by Kim Jong-un.
It is unknown whether a small deal will be made or whether Trump deals an unexpected card. But Trump will define it as a success no matter what.
North Korea’s nuclear program is a critical issue for South Koreans. It is the tragedy of a country that gave up nuclear weapons. Most of us need to be pushed to the last minute to find a breakthrough. But a breakthrough has to be actually desired in the first place.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 14, page 31