Can Trump Pull Off a Deal to Disarm North Korea?

March 14, 2018

Last week, the United States and North Korea stunned the world as they announced their plan to have a summit for their two respective leaders. This surprising diplomatic turn has prompted far more questions than answers, some of which seem like they should have been asked in the tone of a soap opera narrator’s voice-over. Here are a few:

A Question on South Korea:

Did South Korean President Moon Jae-in, an ambitious politician who recently came into office, flatter the leader of the free world into meeting the dictator of North Korea as a means of pushing Moon’s vision of reunification on the Korean peninsula?

A Question on North Korea:

Did the North Korean regime commit to a pre-summit conditional freeze on launching missiles or to a firm promise to negotiate denuclearization of its weapons program, or was the South Korean national security adviser’s representation of Kim Jong Un’s oral offer a bluff?

Questions on the U.S:

Did President Donald Trump, without input from his National Security Council, impulsively reward the Kim regime with a long-sought diplomatic opportunity without any guarantee of compromise? Did Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and aggressive foreign policy cause Kim to fear for his regime’s survival and to sue for a quick agreement, or is Kim closer to marrying his nuclear weapons with intercontinental ballistic missiles and confidently playing from a perceived position of strength?

A Question on China:

Will China be pleased at negotiations aimed at stability on the Korean peninsula, or will it resent Trump’s proposed steel and aluminum tariffs and Kim’s meeting with Trump before meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping?

Questions on objectives:

What would a “good deal” look like with an adversary who does not share Western morality? What would be the U.S. goals at such a summit? To restart negotiations aimed at stability on the Korean peninsula? To accept regime preservation in exchange for denuclearization? Even if the regime relinquished its “treasured sword” — the nuclear program its leaders believe guarantees regime survival — would North Korea continue its brutal human rights oppression, illicit global drug activity, supplying of chemical-weapons-production materials to Syria and others, and counterfeiting of currencies?

A Question on Trust:

How can we “trust but verify” future inspections of closed reactors and the promised cessation of weapons production and testing when North Korea has previously cheated on prior framework agreements and is in the last stage of work on missile re-entry capability as the final piece of a decadeslong effort to protect its regime with a nuclear umbrella? Is Kim distrustful of the U.S., as he is well aware that Libya relinquished its nuclear assets after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, only to see its dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, overthrown a few years later?

Real answers will have to wait until further details are known. But drawing on the past and looking into the future, it would behoove us to take some lessons, experiences and nuances into account.

The American Experience

Some commentators viscerally judged Trump’s quick acceptance of the invitation to meet Kim before the end of May as “impulsive” and a “granting of prestige” never before extended by a sitting U.S. president to the Pyongyang regime.

Within hours, the Trump administration clarified that scheduled military exercises with South Korea would go on, that sanctions were not being lifted, and that “concrete” steps from North Korea would be required as a precondition to any meeting.

As he plans for a potential summit, then, Trump might wish to draw lessons from the protracted Arms Control Treaty negotiations conducted by President Ronald Reagan, who was willing to disappoint Western commentators issuing rushed “victory” or “failure” report cards on his administration’s summit meetings with the Soviet Union.

In 1986, Reagan walked away from the Reykjavik Summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, sensing that the U.S. could achieve better results for arms control and human rights by maintaining its commitment to missile defense, which the Soviets vehemently opposed. Gorbachev soon gave in. Sometimes, short-term setbacks set the stage for improved results.

But even Reagan’s success, which led to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR, did not end our competition with Russia, which has rebounded to assert its regional ambitions and desire to be a significant player on the world stage. Russia is still a dictatorship, and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently bragged about the country having weapons so powerful that “now you will notice me.”

What would a “good deal” look like with an adversary who does not share Western morality?

Some deals might not be worth making. On July 14, 2015, President Barack Obama announced the Iran nuclear deal. While that deal has halted or significantly reduced Iran’s nuclear bomb-making capability, it has done nothing to deter the Mullah terror state from aggression in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon and, indeed, its continued collaboration with North Korea. Trump has castigated the Iran deal. Time will tell if he can make a better one with North Korea.

The Korean Context 

South Korea — officially the Republic of Korea — is a robust democracy featuring pro-American “free Koreans” and more “independent Koreans” who support President Moon Jae-in — elected in 2017 after the highly controversial impeachment of his opponent, Park Geun-hye. The split in South Korea over American troop presence and close alignment is profound. Moon leans left, and his vision for peninsula reunification is not universally shared.

The Korean peninsula was ruled by Imperial Japan from the early 20th century until the end of World War II. The day after the 1945 American bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, the Soviet Union invaded Korea, dominating the region north of the 38th parallel. U.S. forces moved into the south, ending Japanese rule.

North Korea — officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) — invaded the South in 1950. In the “see-saw war,” Seoul, the South’s capital, changed hands four times. As part of a “police action,” the United States, with the backing of the United Nations, finally pushed up to the Yalu River on China’s border, provoking the Chinese entry on the side of the North. A “war of attrition” lasted until the armistice of 1953, which created the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). No peace treaty was ever signed, and the DMZ has been anything but demilitarized since, with numerous violent skirmishes over the decades.

In 1968, 31 North Korean commandos crossed the DMZ in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee at his residence in the Blue House. Fighting tied to attack resulted in the deaths of 68 South Koreans, three U.S. servicemen and 28 of the North Korean commandos.

However, two days later, North Korea seized a U.S. Navy spy ship, the USS Pueblo, in disputed waters, killing one American sailor and taking prisoner 82 others who were tortured over an 11-month period until their eventual return across the DMZ’s “Bridge of No Return.”

Other cross-border raids included the infamous “Axe Murder Incident,” in which two U.S. Army officers were killed by North Korean soldiers on Aug. 18, 1976, in the Joint Security Area (JSA). The officers were surrounded and killed as they attempted to trim an overgrown poplar tree that was partially blocking United Nations observers’ views across the bridge.

Seeking to enforce the armistice, the U.N. Command, supported by U.S. and South Korean forces, conducted Operation Paul Bunyan, which succeeded in cutting down the tree and re-establishing deterrence against the North. One of the soldiers who participated was Moon Jae-in, now the president of South Korea.

In 1994, the Clinton administration negotiated an “Agreed Framework” that sought to freeze and replace North Korea’s plutonium nuclear weapons program with two light-water reactors. The Yongbyon nuclear reactor was shut down, and the North agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, the U.S. and South Korea suspended “team spirit” military exercises in the region and offered North Korea financial assistance, relaxed economic sanctions and 500,000 tons in annual deliveries of heavy fuel oil to use for energy production. All parties pledged to seek to normalize relations.

In a recent private meeting, Bush shared his regret at “kicking the can down the road,” explaining it was his most difficult security problem.

President George W. Bush tried to restore a path to nonproliferation and briefly removed North Korea from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism. By 2002, though, he declared North Korea part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq. The North then kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors and continued its march to a deliverable nuclear weapon.

In a recent private meeting, Bush shared his regret at “kicking the can down the road,” explaining it was his most difficult security problem. He feared the North would respond to any preventive military action by annihilating innocent South Koreans in Seoul who live within a 35-mile range of some 15,000 tube and rocket artillery burrowed into granite mountains and protected behind blast doors.

Finally, years of “Six Party” talks attempted again to encourage North Korea to shut down nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel aid and a path to normalized relations. These talks broke down after the 2009 North Korean satellite launch over the Pacific Ocean, which was essentially an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test. Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” did not address the rising North Korean threat over his eight years in office that followed.

Know Your Adversary

Kim Il-Sung, variously called “Great Leader,” “Heavenly Leader” and even “The Sun,” was installed by Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin in 1948, and he indoctrinated the North Korean population through a 46-year reign. A new calendar was introduced that used 1912 — the year of Kim Il-Sung’s birth — as year 1.

Kim Jong-Il was considered not just his son and successor but his reincarnation. Known as “Dear Leader,” he sat at the center of a similar cult that asserted he could control the weather. Hundreds of memorial statues dedicated to the Kims dot the countryside, despite devastating famines and systemic poverty. A massive mausoleum outside of Pyongyang houses the embalmed bodies of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

Kim Jong Un was officially declared the “supreme leader” following the state funeral of his father in 2011. In 2013, official North Korean news outlets released reports that, due to alleged “treachery,” Kim Jong Un had ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek and many of his children, some by use of flamethrowers. Kim is also widely believed to have ordered the February 2017 poisoning assassination of his brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia.

In recent years, Human Rights Watch asserted: “Abuses in North Korea were without parallel in the contemporary world. They include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. North Korea operates secretive prison camps where perceived opponents of the government are sent to face torture and abuse, starvation rations, and forced labor. Fear of collective punishment is used to silence dissent. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom.”

In 2014, the U.N. Human Rights Council charged North Korea with crimes against humanity.

In the six years since Kim Jong Un, at the age of 27, assumed power as only the third leader of the DPRK, he has tested dozens of missiles, far more than his father and grandfather.

On July 4, in both 2006 and 2009, North Korea tested short- and mid-range missiles. On July 4, 2017, the North passed a major threshold by launching its first ICBM, which experts said had the capability of reaching the U.S. mainland.

In the same period, Pyongyang has also tested nuclear warheads, including a “successful” test on Sept. 3, 2017. The fastening of a nuclear warhead onto a long-range delivery system is a red line that could provoke an American preventive strike.

American policymakers are generally united in asserting the unacceptability of the North Korean nuclear threat and its ability to transfer or trade nuclear technology to nonstate actors. Even the threat of attack on American allies or interests caused Secretary of Defense James Mattis to warn of “a massive military response.” At the DMZ in October 2017, Mattis asserted “our goal is not war, but rather the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Trump’s Approach

Prior to his inauguration, Trump received a briefing from Obama that North Korea was a particularly complex issue. Trump reportedly acknowledged to advisers: “I will be judged by how I deal with North Korea.”

On April 4, 2017, U.S. military intelligence observed Syrian planes from the Shayrat Airbase drop munitions of sarin gas on the town of Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib Governorate.

Trump viewed the pictures of dying children and decided to act, later telling reporters that “no child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

By the morning of April 6, 2017, senior administration officials had briefed congressional leaders and Russian forces in Syria of a potential military strike on Syrian air defenses, aircraft, hangars and fuel supplies. At 3:45 p.m., in a makeshift war room at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Fla., country club, Trump consulted his national security officials and approved the immediate launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the USS Ross and the USS Porter warships in the Mediterranean Sea.

“I will be judged by how I deal with North Korea.” — President Donald Trump

Trump then welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping for several hours of discussions, which included a thorough exchange of views on North Korea.

The leaders and their wives then enjoyed a private dinner, after which Trump excused himself to receive a briefing from Mattis.

When he returned, Trump advised the Chinese leader of the attack just underway in Syria.

(Since that early meeting, Trump has touted a respectful personal relationship with the Chinese leader and lobbied for cessation of Chinese deliveries of regime-sustaining goods to Pyongyang. Xi appears to be going along with Trump’s approach to North Korea so far.)

A week later, on April 13, 2017, a U.S. Air Force Lockheed MC-130 dropped a Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) on ISIS-Khorasan militant forces and tunnel complexes in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. Trump asserted that he had given U.S. commanders “total authorization” to defeat ISIS.

The Trump foreign policy has certainly been aggressive: Syria. Afghanistan. Special Operators against ISIS. Support for Israel and pressure on the Palestinian Authority at the United Nations. Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Even acceding to increased domestic spending in exchange for the end to sequestration limits on American military budgets.

Watching all of this was Pyongyang, the target of Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” through increased sanctions, cyberhacking, freezing of North Korean assets in foreign banks, aggressive military drills led by the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier along with the South Korean navy, stretching from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, and plenty of bluster (“rocket man” on a “suicide mission” who will face “fire and fury”).

Addressing South Korea’s National Assembly on Nov. 8, 2017, the first anniversary of his own election, Trump delivered a stern message: “This is a very different administration than the United States has had in the past. … Do not underestimate us. And do not try us. … We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction. We will not be intimidated.”

In the closing section of his Jan. 30 State of the Union address, Trump addressed all parties with clear messages of warning, resolve and passion to confront “the ominous nature of this regime.”

“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” he said. “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”

Trump then went further, paying respect to the Warmbier family, whose son and sibling Otto, a student at the University of Virginia, was arrested, charged, tried and sentenced to hard labor in North Korea. Upon his return home in June 2017, his injuries resulted in his death.

Time will tell if Mr. Trump remains loyal to first principles and invests in the long process of deterring, containing and reversing the North Korean nuclear threat, or instead seeks a quick deal with a tough adversary that merely makes for interesting TV.

Larry Greenfield is a fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.