North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made an ominous statement during his new year address, saying that his country would pursue a “new path” if the United States insisted on pushing ahead with sanctions on his country.
This, despite President Donald Trump spending the better part of 2018 insisting that his tough talk (followed by some serious dictator worship) with Kim eliminated any threat from North Korea’s ballistic and nuclear weapons programs.
It is not entirely clear what Kim meant by his statement on Tuesday, but it does point to one essential thing: President Trump’s fast-and-loose style of negotiations won’t work with Kim. Whatever a “new path” is, experts say it will require diplomatic precision and finesse, as the alternative would be dangerous.
Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, told ThinkProgress that Kim’s options are limited, given the security alliance between the United States and South Korea.
“I’m not sure what his path would be, other than his version of ‘fire and fury,'” said Manning, referring to threatening language Trump had used against North Korea.
“That is going back to testing and accelerating development …of a long-range missile that can carry a nuclear warhead and strike a target with accuracy,” he added.
A path that would exclude the United States, at this point anyway, seems unlikely as it would force a choice for South Korea — a choice between its long-standing security alliance with the United States and negotiating some kind of agreement with North Korea, which is very much the nuclear threat at its door.
Manning said South Korean President Moon Jae-in has taken a hit in public opinion in making as much (or as little, depending on one’s perspective) progress as he has with North Korea.
Kim, though, is keen to keep pursuing this course. He’s working hard, said Manning, to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, and has actually proven himself to be quite adept at doing so.
“He’s taken it to a new level by advancing relations between the North and South [Koreas] farther than they’ve ever been, really,” said Manning.
And he’s pushing for more. For instance, he wants to open the Kaesong Industrial Region, where South Korea set up factories and hired tens of thousands of North Koreans (the region was shut down in 2016 over North Korea nuclear tests). But opening that industrial complex requires the Trump administration to lift sanctions.
Amb. Bonnie Jenkins, former coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs at the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, told ThinkProgress that a path forward for Kim is clearly one with, at the very least, reduced sanctions.
“The question, of course, is what that means, in terms of what they [the North Koreans] are willing to do,” said Jenkins, who is currently an advisory board member for Foreign Policy for America.
It’s unlikely, she said, that a deal would be reached between the Koreas that does not include the United States, and the Trump administration is certainly aware of this. The security alliance, as well as the sanctions, are “big cards” that the United States holds.
“Nothing can really be resolved on the Korean Peninsula without the U.S. being involved,” she added.
Manning said that Kim sees Trump as a “soft target,” which is why efforts by other administration officials, including Pompeo, to further the negotiations have been contentious and have gone nowhere.
“Kim deserves a George Kennan diplomacy award,” said Manning. “He’s really done it brilliantly — to get North Korea accepted, like Pakistan and India, as a de-facto nuclear weapon state and treated as a country, and that’s where he’s trying to go.”
“Frightening prospect” of another summit
The United States made a huge mistake in accepting North Korea’s language in the bilateral statement made after the Singapore Summit in June, which in no way explained what “total denuclearization” meant, said Manning.
And there was no one else in the room, other than translators, who could shed light on how that discussion unfolded. There are also no transcripts of the summit available, not even to lawmakers who have requested them.
The short joint statement that was released was thin on details, and “horrible,” said Manning. “It looked like it was written in Pyongyang.”
“The idea that we might have a second summit is actually somewhat frightening given what happened at the first summit,” he said.
“There’s got to be somebody in the administration who understands that he [Kim] is not just going to give up his weapons before sanctions are relieved,” said Jenkins.
In reading reports of Kim’s speech, Jenkins said she sees him warning the U.S. that it can’t continue to press it on making concessions without promising something substantive in return.
“What we should be doing is taking that into account in our next discussion,” she said, adding that the U.S. should be better prepared if there is a next round.
There’s a possibility that, if allowed to negotiate with Trump alone, Kim will try get the president, who has been complaining about the cost of keeping U.S. troops in South Korea, to withdraw the nuclear umbrella (the protection South Korea gets from the U.S. as part of their alliance).
The two possibilities Manning fears the most are “Trump getting snookered into a deal” by Kim, or both sides going back to heated rhetoric and threats.
A (kinda, sorta) JCPOA?
Both Manning and Jenkins see a third path — a step-by-step plan that would see North Korea complete various stages of denuclearization in exchange for sanctions relief. These sanctions would “snap back” in the event of violations on North Korea’s behalf.
If one takes away the actual nuclear weapons, this sounds an awful lot like the 2015 nuclear deal signed with Iran, which called for the country to scale back its nuclear enrichment activities in exchange for sanctions relief. (Unlike North Korea, Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.)
The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or JCPOA), signified a breakthrough after years of suspicion and stalemate between the West and Iran over the country’s nuclear energy program.
President Trump, of course, hated that deal, and violated it by pulling out in May, despite the fact that the other countries in the agreement (France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and Germany) have remained. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), meanwhile, has continued to confirm that Iran has not violated the deal.
So can a JCPOA-esque deal possibly work with North Korea?
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, other than Trump being an idiot,” said Manning.
“Why not say to them, ‘Okay, you let the IAEA monitor and verify that you are destroying these facilities, and if you do that, we’ll do X, Y, and Z?'” said Manning. Furthermore, there could be diplomatic overtures, such as arts or athletic exchanges that could change the currently tough tone.
Jenkins also believes that anything other than a gradual, carefully negotiated step-by-step process is “a step towards failure.”
She said that Trump’s distaste for the JCPOA was based more on the fact that it was negotiated by the Obama administration rather than the substance of the agreement itself.
The lost art of diplomacy
Jenkins said that, ideally, the details of any kind of deal would be hashed out long before President Trump sets foot in a room with Kim again.
“You have to come in ready to discuss what denuclearization means, you have to come in ready to understand that the other side is going to be seeking reduction in sanctions. You may have to think about if and how that might happen…you have to come in with a negotiating, diplomatic strategy coming forward,”she said.
This takes a lot of discussion “on the lower levels,” before the heads of state meet, she said. The entire team, however, has to be on board, including Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who in the past has spoken out against negotiating with North Korea.
“There’s a large problem — the entire government has one view of North Korea and Trump has another one,” said Manning, who has previously worked in the State Department. “He has a fairly decent team of people…they’re solid, serious people who aren’t allowed to do their jobs.”
Noting the fate of previous Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who was fired while on an overseas trip), Manning said that Pompeo is essentially a mini-Trump who is “afraid to do anything.”
“So how do you negotiate in that environment if you are a diplomat?” he asked.