For better or worse, US President Donald Trump has made resolving the Korea conflict, now in its 65th year, a primary foreign policy goal.
And while everything Trump is doing seems to defy the diplomatic playbook, his unconventional approach has worked – so far – and is making the world a safer place. Compare and contrast this with decades of traditional failed approaches.
For two decades, Trump has been consistent in his recommended approach to resolving the Korean conflict: “If spoken to correctly, they will play ball,” Trump told Wolf Blitzer in a 1999 interview. “You go in and you start negotiating, and if nothing happens then you have to take rather drastic measures.”
If Trump’s we-can’t-kick-this-can-down-the-curb-another-day conviction is real, the Korean status quo is over. Whether the conflict’s end occurs by diplomacy or by force remains to be seen; as he’s stated, Trump does not tell the enemy his plans. Despite the radio silence on details, some likelihoods can gleaned from his Maximum Pressure, or Peace Through Strength strategy.
He has repeatedly warned North Korea of a bloody nose and moving to Phase Two if Phase One fails. Additionally: dropping MOAB’s on Afghanistan; pulling out of the Iran Deal; appointing two individuals the regime deeply hates, National Security Advisor John Bolton and chief negotiator Allison Hooker, respectively; and Vice-President Pence invoking ‘The Libya Model’ – all may well have kept Kim up late at night.
This is the kind of rhetoric that arguably brought North Korea out of isolation and Trump’s written reminder of the US’ “massive and powerful” nuclear arsenal pulled them back to the table after they scrapped talks only weeks before the planned summit.
At the time, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated that a war with North Korea would occur if all diplomatic options failed and that although catastrophic, the US would win it.
A plan and believers
Despite being mom on his seemingly non-existent playbook on North Korean denuclearization – which National Security Adviser Bolton says will achieve complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) within one year – the Trump administration seems confident that their strategy is viable. Trump laments that the experts have been wrong for decades, although he has admitted that he too may be wrong.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha revealed that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo does indeed have a plan for achieving denuclearization. Also, former head of the US National Intelligence Council Gregory Treverton made a surprising statement, claiming Kim is, indeed, “making a strategic policy shift.”
Some players now believe the entire purpose of North Korea developing their nuke program was not for military survival, but for the purpose of cashing the program in for economic benefits. American columnist Gordon Chang has even argued that giving up their nukes is about regime survival.
But hold on. Daily NK reported that North Korea is developing a secret military zone in Chagang Province to conceal nuclear weapons and 38 North reported that nuclear development continues. Further, the report of a leaked document revealed that some agents believe North Korea is continuing its nuclear development.
The CIA has not confirmed or denied the veracity of the leaked document. And the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has neither confirmed nor denied the veracity of the 38 North analysis.
And those of us in the nosebleed seats have a history of broken deals, bad relations and mistrust to base our endless skepticism on. Although these days, more and more pundits are letting analysis be blinded by Trump hate.
That said, this process needs time to play out. After all, it has not even started yet: Pompeo arrives in Pyongyang on Friday for his first meeting with the North Koreans, post-Singapore summit. For now, the risk of war has been reduced.
Many believe North Korea will never give up its nukes, under any circumstances. That suggest Phase Two is the only way to rid the regime of them – but surely, we must be willing to give the peace process a chance for a year?
No troop withdrawal
The regime has had three weeks to show some progress, but pundits already argue little has, or ever will, occur.
The US, for its part, has stopped some portions of military exercises for at least one six-month cycle. But troops are not pulling back and the Unites States Indo-Pacific Command, or USINDOPACOM, has expanded its geographical presence to form a half-ring around China from India to Australia, Japan and Mongolia.
The other part of the ring flows through other Combatant Command-occupied ‘Stans.’ China and North Korea are effectively contained. Admiral Harry Harris, who has received top secret briefings on North Korea for more than a decade, is waiting to take up his position as US ambassador to South Korea. It has also been reported that Washington is now spending half a billion dollars on underground warfare training and equipment – North Korea is noted for its extensive tunnel networks – while US nuclear arms are on a hair-trigger alert posture.
While many analysts believe Kim has played Trump, North Korea has made moves. They have agreed to resume family reunions, returned POW’s, “blown up” an already ruined nuke facility and have erased all anti-US propaganda and halted anti-US rallies. And in accordance with the Trump-Kim declaration, they have agreed to establish diplomatic relations – which they’ve always wanted – to build a lasting peace regime on the peninsula, to complete denuclearization and to return POW remains.
Sadly, no mention of human rights concerns were addressed in the declaration. Trump insists he will be addressing them with Kim.
While things seem to be moving slowly, a dizzying amount of Track I and Track II diplomacy is taking place. Every week senior officials from the Trump administration and the North Korean regime are scurrying toward normalization of relations, which, according to Trump, will occur after denuclearization.
For Kim: status quo vs survival?
This effort grows more complicated as each country’s domestic politics are taken into account. Perhaps, neither the Washington establishment nor the North Korean elites are prepared to end the status quo.
In North Korea, many will likely be purged or executed for opposing Kim’s changes. Already, one general has reportedly been executed. The sheer amount of ideological change that would have to occur in North Korea is mind-boggling.
Given all these seemingly impossible problems, concerns and hurdles, we should hope Trump has a master plan. However, if his critics are right about his ego, there may be problems ahead. North Korea playing Trump could damage the legacy he wishes to leave in the history books as “The Great Dealmaker.” If North Korea plays Trump, he’d be even more motivated to move to Phase Two and start dishing out bloody noses.
Trump has been criticized heavily for appeasing Kim, especially by well-known North Korean defector Yeon-Mi Park – who called the Singapore Summit “disgusting.” While her fury is understandable, Trump’s appeasement may end up saving millions of lives, he says. Furthermore, Trump may have Trojan-horsed the regime: the Korea Central News Agency referred to Trump as “Supreme Leader” – an unheard-of expression for an American president in a country that infuses its education with anti-American indoctrination. That, alone, was a propaganda coup.
From now on, North Koreans may question whether the US is actually as evil as they have always thought, while they dream of the better lives they have seen in smuggled foreign media.
And while Kim ponders whether to deceive the US or fundamentally transform his country, he may just be watching the video Trump showed him at the Singapore Summit. If he is even half the survivalist we believe him to be, might – just might – choose to play by Trump’s rules.
He knows the risks. If he cheats, his country will be blacked-out, isolated, cut off from the world, given bloody noses and he may end up being dragged through the streets and shot like Gaddafi.
Kim’s choices are stark. Denuclearize and reform, or suffer – and perhaps perish – in isolation.