DON’T BE FOOLED BY KIM JONG-UN’S BRINKMANSHIP DIPLOMACY
Last week the world was taken aback by the sudden prospect of a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. But I do not believe that the efforts by Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, all unconventional leaders, are in fact likely to lead to a summit or improve stability on the Korean Peninsula.
The common denominator among the trio is a strong desire for a quick political triumph to shore up their standing at home. Facing mid-term elections this fall, Trump for one must boost his approval rating, which has remained low for a long period of time.
In the hermit kingdom of the North, elderly citizens and little children are beginning to starve as Kim desperately struggles to survive the harsh impact of international economic sanctions.
Meanwhile, Moon wants badly to implement a revision of the South’s constitution as soon as possible in order to socialize his nation before the people realize how detrimental such an undertaking would be.
Behind these rapidly unfolding developments are the distinctly different desires of Washington, Pyongyang, and Seoul. On March 5, a high-powered South Korean delegation, including Chung Eui-yong, Director of the Blue House National Security Office, and Suh Hoon, Director of the National Intelligence Service, flew to Pyongyang for an audience with the volatile dictator. On the following day they returned to Seoul, relaying Kim’s dubious personal message to Moon that he would be willing to abandon his nuclear program if the security of his government is guaranteed.
Kim also entrusted the South Korean emissaries with a message to Trump—that he wants to meet with him “as soon as possible.”
On March 8, Chung and Hoon arrived in Washington to discuss with top US government officials the results of their talks with Kim. In the afternoon, they were invited to the White House. Chung and Hoon first called on National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel, respectively.
The visitors were later joined by Vice President Mike Pence, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. South Korean Ambassador Ahn Ho-yong was also present.
Originally, the visitors were slated to confer with Trump the following day, March 9. But the president, aware that the South Korean delegates were already at the White House, invited them into the Oval Office that afternoon.
Reportedly, Trump had already known of Kim’s desire for a summit with him via the CIA.
President with No Foreign Affairs Experience
Prior to the visitors’ arrival in Washington on March 8, Trump had actually spoken to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Djibouti on the phone about Kim’s proposal for a summit. But the president failed to tell his state secretary the critical fact that he had already decided to meet with the North Korean dictator. Instead, Trump tweeted at 5:08 p.m. on the same day that “a meeting with Kim is being planned.” One can readily imagine how this must have made America’s top diplomat feel.
After getting Chung’s report in the Oval Office, Trump immediately said he would meet with Kim in April. This declaration rattled the visitors, as they knew a US-North Korea summit must not precede Moon’s summit with his North Korean counterpart scheduled for late April in Panmunjom. This led to a target in May.
This decision was in itself unprecedented in terms of the time spent on so critical a matter—an action absolutely unbecoming the conduct of diplomacy on the part of a major power. But this was just the beginning. Trump then apparently proposed that the public announcement about a US-North Korea summit be made then and there at the White House.
Stunned by the impetuosity of the president, Chung retreated to McMaster’s office to draft a statement jointly with American officials. He then reportedly used a secure telephone line to call Moon in the wee hours of Seoul to get his approval.
In the meanwhile, an elated Trump did what he seldom does—stuck his head into the White House Press Room. To the media assembled there, whom Trump detests as providers of “fake news,” he jovially announced that there would be “an important announcement soon.”
None of his close advisors—including Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, or Kelly—was asked to state their views in advance on how best to respond to Kim’s summit proposal. Does America have no other recourse than to leave its critical decisions on North Korea to the whim of a mercurial president with no prior foreign policy experience? Isn’t it aware that behind North Korea China ominously lurks?
The New York Times had this to say about the announcement in its March 10 edition: “Some of the president’s advisors objected to the idea of a foreign official making a statement from the White House lectern, so they had him (Chung) do it instead on the White House driveway, where visitors typically speak with reporters. Still, it was highly unusual for a foreign official to announce an American president’s decision in a major international situation.”
The risk involved in Trump’s questionable snap decision was revealed as early as the following day, when White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders stressed that there would be no summit “without concrete verifiable actions” from North Korea. Sanders effectively refuted the statement the president made the previous day that he would meet Kim without the kind of firm preconditions sought by previous US administrations.
Other questions about Trump’s decision were raised during a news conference on March 9. Can Kim’s promise of denuclearization really be trusted? Why would Trump want to meet with Kim without first demanding the release of the three Americans currently detained in North Korea? Can what Kim promises be verified in the short two-month run-up to the proposed US-North Korea summit? Did it make sense for Trump to make the announcement about the summit to the US media before informing other nations involved, including China?
Beware of North Korea’s True Intentions
More issues were raised in the following days, including questions about the White House staff and the Department of Defense learning about Trump’s decision via media reports. Isn’t such fickle diplomacy dangerous?
In response to all these questions, Sanders was left to answer repeatedly that no meeting would take place until concrete actions were taken that matched the rhetoric of North Korea.”
Trump likely is not fully aware of how America’s North Korean diplomacy has evolved over the decades, or of the North Korea’s deplorable diplomatic lies and unkept promises. Trump may be overconfident, feeling that his “unwavering pressure” has brought results and that “the Little Rocket Man” is no match for him. But while it is fair to say the pressure has worked, it is also true that there has been a considerable backlash to his slapdash diplomacy within his own administration.
It is critical to understand that “denuclearization” as asserted by North Korea represents a concept entirely different from what is meant in Japan or the US.
The “denuclearization” that the international community demands is defined as CVID—“Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Dismantlement” (of nuclear facilities).
For North Korea, however, “denuclearization” means: “Before North Korea discards its nuclear weapons, the threat of American nuclear weapons, which compelled us to pursue our own nuclear program in the first place, must be eliminated. If the US removes all of its nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula, North Korea will gladly abandon its nuclear weapons. Only after that will a denuclearization of the peninsula be accomplished.”
It is highly possible that North Korea will continue to make such assertions going forward. Pyongyang obviously is set to claim that the US will always be able to attack the North with nuclear weapons mounted atop ballistic missiles, without deploying them on the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, the North likely will demand that the US dissolve its alliance with the South and withdraw its troops from the peninsula once and for all. Without doubt, North Korea is committed to ultimately driving a wedge between the US-South Korea and the US-Japan alliances. We must resolutely bear this in mind.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 795 in the March 22, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)