OVER THE DECADES, North Korea has acquired a reputation for starting a crisis and, as events reach a boiling point, stepping in to defuse it, earning respect and reward for its dual personality as arsonist and firefighter.
Culminating with his performance in Singapore earlier this month, President Trump has done the same. Over the course of what was (for most of us) a very long 2017, he met each provocation with one of his own. Some, such as the nuclear-button size debate, became unintended comedy. Others failed to achieve a seriousness of purpose, such as sending “an armada” — except for the quarrelsome fact that one of the carriers was merrily sailing off to previously scheduled drills in Australia. Then there was the “bloody nose” idea to strike North Korea with a demonstration attack, telling them there is more where that came from. And of course, there was his threat issued from a golf clubhouse to rain fire and fury on pugilistic and pugnacious North Korea. By the end of the year, instead of contemplating the extended family over for the holidays, many Americans were wondering instead how to survive nuclear war.
In 2018, all that changed, with the planning and eventual holding of the “historic” Trump-Kim summit, during which an unlikely and unprecedented bromance was born. Shortly thereafter, Trump told the world that he had successfully averted a nuclear war (thankfully, no mention of asking the Mexicans to pay for it!). Soon he was back to tweeting about his favorite things.
In fact, the North Korean threat is by no means over. Its pledge to work toward denuclearize, the key element in the Singapore statement, contained no concept of time or scope. Verification is not touched. There were no references to North Korea rejoining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (important because to rejoin is to do so as a nonnuclear-weapons state). The North Koreans agreed to rejoin it in the Six-Party Joint Statement of September 2005, but being Trump — like being North Korean — is not to acknowledge previous obligations.
More problematic was the agreement in Singapore to cancel future US-South Korean exercises. Trump appears to have swallowed hook, line, and sinker the North Korean position, echoed through the decades but ignored up until Singapore, that “war games” (North Korean-speak for exercises) were provocative, even though they are defensive. Trump added on his own the thought that “war games” are also expensive, and, besides, he’d like to withdraw US troops.
The real problem with the conversation about US troops was, of course, that the president was talking with the wrong Korea. The South Koreans — America’s ally — were informed belatedly and forced to accept a fait accompli.
Apart from the leaders’ chemistry, if the president wants to accomplish something real with his new BFF, he will have to get to work starting with sanctions leverage. An obvious casualty of the getting-to-know-you summit is the “maximum pressure” campaign. MP is unlikely to be revived in South Korea or especially with the Chinese, now reeling from the White House’s economic moves.
There needs to be a real roadmap. Do we seek (again) North Korea’s return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a nonnuclear state? The North Koreans ultimately did not follow through on that agreement — they provided an incomplete nuclear declaration in 2008 and failed to provide an adequate verification later that year.
Is the process really just between North Korea and the United States? Already, Trump has erred with the South Koreans by ignoring their interests. What about other regional players? Does the Trump administration really believe China will be content with after-action briefings and not have strong views about what comes next? Working with China is tough, but working against them is tougher.
What about working with Japan? One of America’s closest allies, and essential in any Korean contingency, Japan is deeply concerned about the president’s pliability, especially if he agrees on longer-range missiles while ignoring ones that can reach Tokyo.
What is the linkage to the Iran deal? This horse may have left the barn, but as Trump goes forward, he might give some thought to the fact that his precipitous decision to withdraw from the Iran deal has probably not made a lasting North Korea deal any easier. Fixing the Iran deal might prove easier than creating a North Korea deal.
Finally, what is the eventual architecture of US involvement in Northeast Asia? US troops have been a stabilizing force in Northeast Asia for more than 60 years. Trump might be comfortable as a classic isolationist. But the history of US retreat is also a history of bloody return, whether in Europe or on the Korean peninsula in 1950.
Christopher R. Hill, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, was the chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005 to 2009. He is chief advisor to the chancellor for global engagement and professor of the practice in diplomacy at the University of Denver.