As US President Donald Trump wraps up his second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with the announcement of a major foreign policy victory, we are reminded of Senator Howard Baker’s famous words in the Watergate hearings: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” When the most powerful leader in the world is deeply engaged in a tête-à-tête with the world’s most brutal dictator, his constituents, and indeed, the audiences most affected by his one-on-one negotiation, have the right to know what was discussed behind the scene. Clearly, secret negotiations are an integral part of presidential diplomacy and the second Trump-Kim summit is no exception. But if critical details for obvious national security reasons must remain classified for the time being, the logical questions remain: “How much can you trust the president (or prime minister as the case may be) to do the right thing?” Equally important, “how much counsel has he or she received throughout the process leading up to personal diplomacy?” In the end, one has to believe that the leader will stand on the right side of history.
No US president has placed as much importance on his personal diplomatic prowess and negotiating skills as Donald Trump. After his groundbreaking meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June 2018, Trump famously tweeted: “Just landed—a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future! Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea. President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer—sleep well tonight!”1
One can argue that Trump’s hyperbole is an innate part of his leadership style designed to accentuate his capabilities. But Trump’s numerous gaffes, misinterpretations, blatant disregard for facts and truths, and exaggerations, have huge consequences. Prior to his departure to Hanoi, Vietnam for his second summit with Kim Jong-un from February 27-28, 2019, Trump stated that “I don’t want to rush anybody. I just don’t want testing. As long as there is no testing, we’re happy.”2 Going into the summit, many experts argued that Trump was likely to agree to the “freezing of Pyongyang’s controversial nuclear capabilities rather than the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” that the US and most of the international community had previously said Kim must agree to before receiving any form of sanctions relief.”3
The consequences of high-stakes diplomacy in Korea
From what Trump and his aides have alluded to prior to the second summit, the United States and North Korea are likely to agree to a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and continued cessation of ballistic missile tests. In addition, press reports have stated that Washington and Pyongyang could agree on an end-of-war statement that would supersede the 1953 armistice agreement. The exchange of liaison offices between Washington and Pyongyang, dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, and sanctions relief are some other possibilities that have been floated. Supporters of intensified engagement with Kim Jong-un argue that despite Trump’s penchant for the limelight and narcissism, he has broken the mold in negotiating with North Korea. Given the pushback Trump received from the 2018 Singapore summit for lack of concrete measures, Trump is likely to pin down Kim on more specific steps. Even key adversaries such as US Senator Bernie Sanders have applauded Trump’s meetings with Kim because if Trump can convince Kim Jong- un to denuclearize, that would be a win-win.
Conversely, detractors maintain that Trump has the potential for giving in too much without thinking about key consequences. For example, if he decides on an end-of-war statement that would be followed by the signing of a formal peace treaty including the two Koreas, the United States, and China over the next year, the status of the US Forces Korea (USFK) could be diminished. South Korean President Moon Jae-in continues to insist that the alliance and the USFK are totally separate from building an irreversible peace regime. But after the United States and North Korea agree to move beyond the armistice, the political mood will likely shift. There is a real possibility that Trump will feel inclined to undertake a partial withdrawal of the USFK to demonstrate his eagerness in normalizing relations with North Korea.
The geopolitical stakes could not be higher on the Korean Peninsula. No one opposes inter-Korean dialogue and direct high-level negotiations between key stakeholders such as the United States and North Korea. What is troublesome, however, is to proceed without understanding major security and political issues such as the consequences of any reduction of the USFK or for that matter, the US Forces Japan (USFJ) following the second US-North Korea summit. Already, the Moon government is eager to move forward with a wide-range of South-North economic projects that can only go forward with UN approval. It is difficult to imagine that “maximum pressure” on North Korea can be maintained after the second summit. For all intents and purposes, Kim Jong-un has already gained the upper hand since Trump has provided legitimacy and credibility to the world’s last totalitarian leader.
Last, but not least, if post-summit developments accelerate between the two Koreas and the United States and North Korea, Japan is going to be left on the sidelines. Given the depth of mistrust and rising tensions between Seoul and Tokyo that is virtually without parallel since normalization of relations in 1965, there is little political incentive for the Moon administration in improving ties with Tokyo. Nor does the Abe government have much desire in moving beyond highly contentious bilateral issues. But an already weakened US-Korea-Japan trilateral security cooperation is likely to be further eviscerated in the aftermath of the second summit.
Lessons from history
Leaders, especially powerful ones, are immensely important and consequential. What they decide in the open but also behind closed doors, outlives them, sometimes for generations. But even leaders of middle or small powers leave huge footprints and legacies, oftentimes with devastating results. Korea’s last king at the tail end of the Joseon Dynasty, King Kojong, comes to mind. In the end, Kojong was not able to effectively cope with the rising tide of Japanese imperialism, the rapid decline of the Qing Dynasty, and Chinese and Russian military defeat. Plus, as leader of a backward, agrarian economy with deep social schisms, rigid class hierarchies, entrenched worldviews, very limited knowledge of the outside world, and piecemeal modernization, even if Kojong were an enlightened monarch, the odds would have been stacked against him. Still, if Kojong had been able to see through the vast inequalities and shortcomings of Korea and undertaken a concerted effort to truly modernize Korea while implementing a pragmatic foreign policy, Korea’s unfortunate exposure to the 20th century would have been qualitatively different.
Twenty-eight years after the downfall of the Joseon Dynasty in September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and allowed Nazi Germany to take over the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. After addressing the cheering crowd upon his return to London, Chamberlain famously uttered the words “I believe it is peace for our time.” He was feted at home as a peacemaker who averted war with Hitler although many argued that the Munich Agreement was nothing but a case of appeasement. A year later, German tanks and the Luftwaffe attacked Poland that triggered World War II. Perhaps more than any other major leader in the 20th century, it was Chamberlain who not only badly misread Hitler’s ambitions and intentions in Europe, but was known for believing so strongly in his convictions. Misperceiving an adversary but also believing in your own innate ability in making history led to the disastrous chain of events from Munich that would only end with the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan in the most brutal and costly war in human history.
Leaders matter a great deal
A poorly equipped leader for a combination of reasons is highly unlikely to cope effectively with increasingly powerful and vexing developments. At the heart of whether high-stakes negotiation between two leaders is desirable or not are three critical factors: 1) the depth of trust a leader inspires based on his or her previous actions and knowledge of critical political and historical forces; 2) the ability to secure backing from your own government and that of your key allies; and 3) the degree to which a leader takes into consideration longer term and, often times, unintended consequences of decisions taken during summit meetings. If a leader lacks one or more of these essential elements, then regardless of his negotiating skills (real or imagined), the outcome is likely to be flawed, perhaps fundamentally.
It is enticing, especially when you are in power, to think that you have the ability to make history, or even undo it. Hence, the persona of the leader, their ability to process complex problems, and their innate sense of their abilities and limitations are critical factors. Again, absent these elements, there is a very good change of overestimating one’s importance, taking rash decisions, and standing on the wrong side of history.
George H.W. Bush and German unification
The question of trust is essential in understanding what high-stakes diplomacy can and cannot achieve. At the height of change across Europe but especially in East Germany after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, among other world leaders, took center stage. The two-plus-four mechanism that charted the pathway toward peaceful reunification of the two Germanies was never destined to succeed. But a critical ingredient was Bush’s calm, collected, strategic, and humble approach toward multilateral diplomacy and tête-à-tête with Gorbachev, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and French President Francois Mitterand. No US president occupied the Oval Office with such a wide-breadth of direct foreign and national security policymaking experience as George H.W. Bush had. At the same time, no Soviet leader occupied the Kremlin who was willing to challenge the very tenets of communist rule even when it meant the erosion of power, and ultimately, his downfall.
On May 31, 1990 during a meeting at the White House, Bush and Gorbachev discussed the accelerating tempo of change in East Germany and the growing likelihood of rapid unification. As the two outlined their contrasting positions on a unified Germany, whether it should be in NATO, and broader questions relating to the East-West balance in Europe, Bush remarked, “I wanted to say that we approach Germany from different positions, although the [recent] transformations, as you pointed out correctly, are now changing the faces of both the Soviet Union and the United States, being in direct contradictions with the established stereotypes.”4
As the two leaders exchanged cordial but contrasting views on the role of a unified Germany and whether she could remain in NATO, Gorbachev argued that “the United States and the Soviet Union agree that united Germany, upon reaching the final settlement, taking into account the results of World War Two, would decide on its own which alliance she would be a member of.”5 Bush readily agreed but qualified it with his own wording: “I would propose a somewhat different formulation: the United States is unequivocally in favor of united Germany’s membership in NATO, however, if it makes a different choice, we could not contest it, we will respect it.”6 In perhaps the most important words uttered by Gorbachev on the German Question, he replied, “I agree. I accept your formulation.”7 Thus ended one of the most remarkable examples of a truly historic tête-à-tête.
Historical forces of change and upheaval are much too complex to be prevented, mitigated, or much less, controlled, by an individual. Still, the contours of German unification, the speedy collapse of Eastern Europe with only limited bloodshed, and of course, the shockwaves flowing from an imploding Soviet Union would have been different with other leaders at the watch in Washington and Moscow. In the end, it is people who make history—hundreds of thousands and millions upon millions but also a handful of leaders—and all of us live with the consequences.
So long as Trump remains in the White House, he will continue to believe that he is a giant in the pantheon of diplomacy. In the absence of any meaningful foreign policy victory or key legacy more than two years into his term, the North Korean portfolio provides unique opportunities for Trump. North Korean officials realize that so long as any deal is reached between the leaders, the United States and its allies, must follow suit. For now, Trump does not seem to understand that he is actually expediting and strengthening the alignment of interests between China, North Korea, Russia, and, some would say, the current leadership of South Korea on building an irreversible peace regime, i.e. longer-term weakening of the US-ROK alliance.
Because Trump places the highest of priorities on transactional relationships, he does not quite understand why the USFK, for example, are critical for maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula even after the armistice agreement is replaced with a peace treaty. Nor does he comprehend that a weakened US in South Korea is not only going to weaken the US presence in Japan, it would dilute American leverage in East Asia just at a time when China’s own strategic leverage is increasing in and around the Korean Peninsula and indeed, throughout Asia. Genuine peace and a just peace cannot be engineered on the basis of egotistical diplomacy or very warped visions of an adversary’s motivations and strategies. Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement reminds us of the catastrophic consequences of a gross misunderstanding of a determined foe’s plans and strategies. Let us hope that history will not be repeated in Hanoi.
2. “Can Trump Avoid Caving to Kim in Vietnam?” The New York Times, February 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/26/opinion/trump-kim-vietnam.html
3. Lee Jeong-ho and Bhavan Japipgragas, “Trump-Kim Summit 2019: Donald Trump lands in Hanoi, but experts say talks will likely only freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear progress, not dismantle it,” South China Morning Post, February 27, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/diplomacy/article/2187806/trump-kim-summit-2019-talks-likely-freeze-pyongyangs-nuclear
4. “Excerpt from the second conversation between M.S. Gorbachev and G. Bush. Washington, White House, May 31, 1990,” p. 2, Gorbachev Foundation Archive, Moscow, Fond 1, opis, National Security Archive, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/virtual-reading-room#_edn11
5. Ibid., p. 9.