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How US- North Korean Diplomacy Should Have Really Worked
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By Carlos Ramirez

There are many who lauded the Singapore summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim for bringing us back from the brink of war despite the lack of substance in the final agreement. Some have argued that only a bold President with unconventional ideas could have accomplished such a success given the array of only bad options in resolving the North Korean nuclear conundrum. Now that the dust has settled over the Summit of the Century, it is important to ask the question “could it have been done differently with a better outcome?” This is especially the case since it appears that the initial momentum has stalled as the US administration extended a decade old executive order that declares North Korea as a threat to international security. This was followed by satellite images of upgrades to North Korean nuclear facilities that would go against the spirit if not letter of the recently signed Singapore accord.

Of course, it is impossible to answer this counterfactual question in any verifiable way as we cannot rerun history. Still, it may be useful to consider how things might have turned out under more conventional diplomacy. In fact, there is more than enough nuclear diplomatic history to bolster the case that careful planning without fiery rhetoric may have put us in a better position than where we are today. It may be useful here to reiterate the old Santayana adage of those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. So far, it appears President Trump is another victim of Santayana’s dictum. As in past negotiations, North Korea has conceded little other than vague and undefined commitments to denuclearization.

In rerunning the lead up to the summit, there are a number of things that would have almost certainly happened no matter who was US President. Most would agree on the following three: First, North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un would have definitely pursued and accomplished his goal, at least to his satisfaction, of mastering a long range nuclear tipped missile. Second, Kim would have continued his mission to seek an opening for his poverty stricken homeland via a new economic model. Third, South Korean President Moon Jae In was adamant during his election campaign to implement a policy of engagement with the North and would have moved to do so once elected regardless who was sitting in the White House.

But, how would have a more conventional US leader responded to Kim’s nuclear affront to peace and security? An Obama response would have certainly resembled Trump’s policy in the tightening of international sanctions against the North. For proof of this, we need only recall the previous administrations coalition building for economic sanctions against Iran that brought this nation to the nuclear negotiating table. Yet, it is unlikely Obama, Hillary Clinton or even a George W. Bush 43rd would have escalated the conflict through inflammatory speech to the point of impending war. A more politically tranquil environment would have meant better odds for more substantive results from President Moon’s Olympic diplomacy.

So, what about the summit itself? For example, would there have been a Hillary – Kim Summit. Not likely in the near term, mainly because there would have been no need for one as the situation would not have been so dire.  The crisis of imminent war on the Korean peninsula originated with Trump himself and giving him credit now for defusing it seems a little bizarre. Yes, North Korea was exceptionally provocative in testing medium and long range missiles over Japan. To be sure, the security environment would have been extremely tense under a Clinton administration but, absent the verbal fireworks, there would have been no sense of looming conflict. Much of the diplomacy under such circumstances would have likely been carried out between Kim and Moon until Kim made some kind of offer of negotiation that could be considered worthy of American attention. A summit would only have come after the outline of a deal and concrete commitments had been struck.

Under economic sanctions of any American President, the North, like its Iranian counterparts, at some point would have buckled. The big difference would have been that the North Koreans would likely be agreeing to concessions at the start of a dialogue in the hope it could ultimately lead to a presidential summit. Also, it would be easier to keep the global boycott intact since the argument would simply be no international economic relief until the North took concrete actions as was done in the case of Iran. Under the current circumstances, the USA has already given much away by having the President meet with Kim. This has given Kim untold legitimacy and has normalized North Korean regime in the eyes of his domestic audience and the world. In addition, the Chinese have already announced that since the summit was a success, sanctions relief should be forthcoming for the well behaving North Koreans even though they have made only modest concessions.

There is almost unanimous agreement among observers that the US did not gain much from the actual signed agreement. There is no mention of a timetable for a verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of nuclear weapons. We know that when Bill Clinton negotiated the Agreed Framework in the 1990’s, the main component of it was a quid pro quo. North Korea agreed to dismantle its plutonium reactor in exchange for the construction of two light fuel reactors by an American-led international consortium. The actual document was only a few pages in length and, in the end, cheating by North Korea and some bad faith on the part of the USA doomed that agreement. For this reason, the Iran agreement was so lengthy and painstakingly written to avoid any cheating or to diminish any impact of mistrust among the parties.

These experiences tell us two things that might have happened in a parallel universe under a more conventional president. First, the fact that in the past the North has made concessions under duress is proof that the North does respond to traditional diplomacy that does not include hyper-bellicose posturing.  Second, given the gained experience from the Agreed Framework, the Bush 43rd Administration’s  Six Party Talks, and the Iran deal, it is fair to say that American negotiators working under normal circumstances would have insisted on concrete mutually comparable concessions before signing any agreement.

The irony of Trump’s position, as noted by Nicholas Kristof, is that he is duplicating engagement strategies straight out of the Democratic Party diplomatic playbook. President Carter was the first to recognize that we need to negotiate with our adversaries no matter how unsavory they might be. But, he was roundly criticized by experts and the public for his hubris in believing he could change minds by force of personality. Subsequent Democratic Presidents have combined Carter’s diplomacy with President Reagan’s famous mantra of “trust and verify.” They have also melded these with a Trump-like transactional policy – a further irony – insisting that bargains with adversaries must be an agreement based on mutual compromises.

Realizing he has come away with little from the summit, Trump tried peddling a narrative similar to Bush 43rd after the latter first met with Putin. Bush believed he was able to see his counterpart’s soul. Trump is now touting his good relationship and chemistry with the North Korean leader. Most observers dismiss this type of diplomacy as amateur witchcraft. In the case of North Korea, it is likely that any other administration would have come to the early conclusion that a nuclear free North Korea would not happen for many years, if ever. Indeed, even Trump has belatedly realized that this is only the start of a very long dismantling process.

A more conventional strategy would have been to recognize from the outset that complete nuclear disarmament would be a distant goal far into the future only arising from an immediate nuclear arms control and containment policy mixed with economic engagement. These actions in turn could eventually propel internal reform leading to voluntary dismantlement by a more politically mature and economically developed North Korea. Does this strategy sound familiar? (Hint: Iran). Such a diplomatic track would have saved the expense of a summit, much valuable time (1.5 years) and the brinkmanship of a war of tragic proportions. Instead, we are now in a situation where North Korea is emboldened believing it can have both its nuclear weapons and economic prosperity. But, the real winner may in fact be China as it salivates at the prospect of an American drawdown of its forces in the region.


Carlos Ramirez is an Associate Professor of International Politics in the Faculty of International Studies, Kindai University, Osaka.

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