Now that the spectacle of the Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un summit has been left for the history books, attention is turning immediately to the anticipated meeting a month or so later between the “dotard” and the “rocket man,” as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un called each other in 2017. Among some, there is a heady air of anticipation that an on-again-off-again crisis of a quarter century will be settled, leaving no doubt about the merits of a Nobel Peace Prize award. Among most US experts on the Korean Peninsula or international relations specialists, however, there is an ominous feeling that the chances for failure outweigh those for success not just by a little, which might justify the risk, but by an overwhelming degree. To be sure, when the danger of war rises to a palpable level, there is a strong case for creative diplomacy. Yet, that is not a case for any sort of diplomacy at all or for flying in the face of those most experienced in analyzing the unique case of North Korea, as is happening in this situation.
The responses to the diplomatic state at the end of April 2018 are different in important respects from those observed in earlier diplomatic gambits to North Korea. Trump has defined the terms of the discussion, leading to strange bedfellows. He: 1) attacks all earlier US diplomacy as either naïve softness, making bad deals just waiting to be broken by Pyongyang, or “strategic patience” not taking the urgency of facing this crisis seriously; 2) sees threats of war as credible and still on the table, forcing Pyongyang to come to the table and other states to up the pressure with tougher sanctions to avoid military confrontation; 3) expresses optimism that in contrast to other times Pyongyang has decided to negotiate and promised to denuclearize; this is entirely different due to the degree of pressure it faces and its consciousness that Trump is no pushover; and 4) minimizes the notion that Pyongyang is negotiating from strength in light of its nuclear weapons and long-range missile advances. Since Republicans, with scant exception, are disposed to refraining from criticizing Trump and his foreign policy—Russia being an exception—his claims are not much challenged despite signs of a lower level of optimism. The principal source of skepticism about Clinton and Obama’s diplomatic overtures toward Pyongyang is not much heard. While Democrats have been more inclined to give diplomacy a chance and wary of bellicose talk, they are also not very vocal in questioning what Trump is doing despite doubting each of his assumptions about the cause of past failures, the value of threats, the intentions of Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic drive, and Kim’s ability to cause trouble due to recent achievements.
Republicans may muzzle themselves out of a sense that Trump could seek revenge and his base would turn against them were they to question his “infallibility.” Democrats may be inclined to caution when Trump turns from threats of war to diplomacy. The DC expert community in conjunction with those in South Korea and Japan echo the ominous mood over Trump in general. Whether one is in DC awaiting the Trump-Mueller showdown, in Seoul discussing the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit, in China expecting a trade showdown between Trump and Xi Jinping, in Japanese chatting about the troubled Trump-Abe summit, or in Russia fearing a collision course between the United States and Putin, optimism is a rarity. In each case, and especially for North Korea, we need to ask ourselves how much the situation is due to Trump, to longstanding problems coming to a head, and to a fundamental change in the regional and international order. We need, it follows, to avoid the temptation of interpreting the Trump-Kim summit as a function of what we think of Trump. Kim is in the driver’s seat in the 2018 diplomacy under way. Problems would have been similar even if Trump had not been president. And this issue should not be seen as just one of many problems.
The North Korea showdown in 2017 as well as the crisis in US-Russia relations and even the US pursuit of some sort of “trade war” with China were unavoidable, many agree. Trump built on the momentum at the end of Obama’s presidency to secure a tightened sanctions clampdown with determination to alter Kim Jong-un’s calculus. Perhaps, his mixture of flattery and threat to Xi Jinping led to tighter sanctions, but that is questionable. The decision to massively intervene in the US 2016 elections by Putin, whether successful or not in bringing Trump to power, would have set bilateral relations on a collision course. Trump has resisted to limited avail. Finally, by 2017 consciousness of China’s predatory trade policy, including coercive transfer of intellectual property rights, was widespread. Thus, we should be careful to avoid placing credit or blame on Trump alone for the crisis atmosphere he has aggravated with rhetorical flourishes. Kim Jong-un would have rushed to “complete” his threat capabilities in 2017 regardless of the US president, had reason to anticipate the opportunity of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics with progressive president Moon Jae-in in charge, and could count on a sympathetic ear by turning to appeals for diplomacy with vague promises of denuclearization. The path to summitry in 2018 did not need Trump to be quite foreordained. It was one of the bilateral problems primed to come to the fore.
Trump took the North Korean challenge and the other bilateral challenges and made them about himself. The usual strategic consultations with regional experts and diplomatic partners were eschewed. He turned the ongoing multilateral squeeze on Kim Jong-un into a personal “spitting match” until, abruptly, he made an about-face by sounding unduly upbeat about a summit that was arranged without the normal preliminaries. That led veteran analysts to conjecture that the chances were very low for a deal that would satisfy Trump’s demands and those that the US side had long raised. Pessimism prevails about a lasting agreement achievable at the summit, but that does not exclude a victory lap by Trump from wording he will claim signifies complete success and is due exclusively to his brilliant management of the crisis in both 2017 and so far in 2018.
Given Trump’s thirst for the appearance of victory and Kim Jong-un’s cunning strategy as well as desperation for a green light to undermine sanctions and open the spigots from South Korea and China, the Trump-Kim summit stands a good chance of appearing successful. Moon Jae-in, hoping that the momentum would last, would face local elections in June confident that his role would be acclaimed. Kim Jong-un, hosting Xi Jinping with big ambitions, would celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of his country in September in a jubilant mood. Calling his diplomatic achievement remarkable, Trump would make it the hallmark of campaign speeches to boost Congressional support in November. The experts who skeptically pointed to pitfalls in the pathway ahead would be drowned out by authoritative voices lauding what had been achieved.
The complexity of coordinating the North’s arms cutbacks and rewards to North Korea will not lend itself to quick or easy solutions. The problems were intensifying before Trump, and his way of defining them and addressing them will not substitute for the hard work of diplomats and, at times, informed analysts to find solutions. After a period of possible euphoria—already begun in some circles with the Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un summit—a more sober period will cast a cloud on how far denuclearization and missile disarmament will proceed. The triangle of Kim, Moon, and Trump will discover that they can set the broad objectives for negotiations, but they must defer to Xi with Putin and Abe reluctant to be left on the sidelines. The struggle over the shape of the Northeast Asian regional order will not wait for a Trump-Kim-Moon agreement that covers the stages, trade-offs, and compromises of a comprehensive settlement.
China is a signatory to the armistice and has a say on a peace regime to replace it. China has the leverage over sanctions and trade to shape any outcome. It can pressure not only Pyongyang but also Seoul, as proven in its informal sanctions in response to the THAAD deployment. If talks in the first four months of 2018 appeared to marginalize Beijing, apart from Kim Jong-un’s quick visit to meet Xi Jinping in late March, Trump would be making a big mistake to think that Xi’s role is simply to turn on and off sanctions depending on the progress in denuclearization through talks conducted by others. Inattention to China’s likely role is a sign of disregard of geopolitics and geo-economics in a struggle over 25 years.
Kim Jong-un is in the driver’s seat, grasping Moon Jae-in’s outstretched hand while flattering Trump, whose responses were predictable. Kim can be expected to have more success after his impressive run in the first third of 2018. For Trump to put the brakes on when Kim is prepared to make pledges of denuclearization and even, arguably, verification is unlikely, especially when Trump is poised to take a victory lap. Thus, the upbeat diplomatic atmosphere can be expected to extend to late in 2018 or even into 2019. Should Trump impatiently demand commitments at a time that Kim Jong-un finds inconvenient, Kim can consent to more talks without stalling the process or being blamed for a showdown that would seem premature. The showdown can be postponed until Kim Jong-un has the right public relations impact, especially in South Korea, the right diplomatic balance, notably with China, and the right maneuverability with a US president who has a tendency to say things at inopportune times that damage his side’s credibility and leverage in any situation but especially a multilateral one. What will appear for some time to be an unprecedented opportunity will likely loom as a showdown by the first half of 2019.