It’s sufficiently difficult to find insightful coverage on the Trump-Kim summit that I thought I’d throw out some informational tidbits and see if readers (hopefully ones who follow China and Asian politics) would pipe up.
On the one hand, Trump’s conduct in the runup to the meeting served to set up many of the criticisms he is getting. Before the two sides agreed to talk, Trump turned the threat dial up against the rogue regime up to 11 more than once, raising the specter that the volatile Trump really might hit the nuclear red button. He also issued ultimatums that Kim Jong Un would only have this one chance to denuclearize, that There Would Be Consequences if the didn’t, and other Trumpian ritual displays of badassery.
So Trump raised expectations high, when experts were warning that the US had been here before, meaning had entered into negotiations with North Korea, and little had come of them. Moreover, given the short time between the announcement of the summit and the event, there was little time to do any groundwork. So Trump, as he has done before, promised more than he could deliver, and is trying to sell his inflated assessment of his achievements.
Having said that, the outrage in some circles about the talks not having produced much seems overdone, particularly the “OMG Trump talked to a dictator!” tripe. The US is regularly allies with dictators, like Saudi Arabia, which is currently engaging in genocide in Yemen. North Korea may have a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload to the US. Talking is better than the alternatives.
Similarly, the fulmination over Trump cancelling war games in North Korea’s neighborhood also seems overdone. Yes, this has the appearance of being a big concession….but these exercises were mainly a big ticket provocation. But they were also implicitly a threat to China. The Trump critics might consider whether the US wound up giving China a free concession, which is generally a big no-no in negotiations.
However, it has not been sufficiently recognized that North Korea has declared a moratorium on its own provocation, that of its missile tests. That’s not part of the thin summit agreement, so Kim Jong Un could reverse it, but it’s a meaningful concession.
AsMoon of Alabama summed up the deal as a handshake:
This is not a deal, just a declaration. The ‘denuclearization’ commitment by the DPRK is aspirational. There is no equal commitment from the U.S. side. There is no time frame. As predicted the DPRK will not give up its nukes. It had good reasons to build them and the same reasons will let it keep them.
As long as talks are ongoing the DPRK will likely hold off on further nuclear and long range missile tests. The U.S. will likely stop large scale maneuvers in and around Korea. This is the ‘freeze for freeze’ which North Korea long wanted and which China and Russia actively supported.
Further talks between the U.S. and North Korea will be slow walked and may not lead to significant progress in nuclear disarmament. Their main purpose is to hold off the U.S. while the real talks that between North and South Korea continue. This is what the “efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” are really about.
What has not been as well reported as it might have been is the degree to which North Korea has made itself a credible threat to the US. If you read a history of North Korea’s missile launches, not all that long ago, most were failures. In the last couple of years, most look to have been successful or at least partially successful. And North Korea has been launching longer-range missiles. From the Wikipedia write-up of a November 2017 test:
Its potential range appears to be more than 8,000 miles (13,000 km), able to reach Washington and the rest of the continental United States. Much about the missile is unknown. The missile might have been fitted with a mock warhead to increase its range, in which case the maximum missile range while carrying a heavy warhead might be shorter than 13,000 km.
Missile tests also escalated considerably under Kim Jong Un. Per Wikipedia, the 117 tests by North Korea since 1984, 80 have occurred during Kim Jong Un’s rule. CNBC put the number of tests during Kim Jong Un’s tenure at 85 as of March. From its story:
Under third-generation North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the reclusive state has conducted its most powerful nuclear test, launched its first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile and threatened to send missiles into the waters near Guam.
Since 2011, Kim has fired more than 85 missiles and four nuclear weapons tests, which is more than what his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, launched over a period of 27 years.
And while it remains to be seen whether the unprecedented summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un will actually take place, it is clear that North Korea, the only nation to have tested nuclear weapons this century, has been very busy perfecting its missile arsenal.
With that as background, the Australian defense establishment think tank, the Lowy Institute, argues that the US came to the negotiating table with a weak hand:
You would think, from the tone of these criticisms, that Trump was travelling to Singapore to negotiate the terms of Pyongyang’s surrender. But these critiques belie the weakness of America’s negotiating position…..America’s position on the Korean Peninsula is under unprecedented strain because North Korea now has a missile that can place a nuclear warhead on a US city.
But that’s not even the biggest challenge the US faces in Asia. China is an economic behemoth that wants to displace the US as the leading strategic power in the region, and maybe even push the US out of Asia altogether.
Does the US have the will and resources to resist these twin pressures? It seems unlikely when you consider the scale of the China challenge (much bigger than the Soviet Union) and the fact that there’s no reason vital to the US national interest to fight China or North Korea. Nor is there a compelling reason for the US to keep its troops in South Korea indefinitely; South Korea can defend itself.
Altogether, this means the US needs a deal with North Korea more than North Korea needs a deal with the US.
It’s not that the US is totally without leverage. But sanctions will always have limits because ultimately China can open and close the border with North Korea as and when it chooses. The other option is to threaten war, but is that realistic when North Korea can retaliate to US strikes with nuclear weapons?
Joel Mathis offers a simpler contrarian view in Trump is a lousy president. He still deserves a victory lap on North Korea. His argument is that Trump had only two choices, go to war or de-escalate, and he chose the latter:
Yes, the smart betting today is that the results of the Singapore summit will prove to be hollow. North Korea made vague commitments to denuclearization — haven’t we heard that before? — and President Trump made somewhat-more-specific promises to ratchet down America’s military involvement on the peninsula….
North Korea is probably not going to actually give up its nuclear weapons under this agreement. It was never going to give up its nukes, no matter how much huffing and puffing American officials did on the international stage — particularly after John Bolton oh-so-wisely reminded the world of the Libyan precedent for such deals. Which left President Trump with two choices: Go to war, or do something to save face.
He chose to save face. Thank God…
The second-best scenario in North Korea was always this: The country would keep its weapons, and the U.S. would decide that war over those weapons wasn’t worth it. This is the scenario the Trump administration — whether the president realizes it or not — has apparently decided to implement.
War on the Korean peninsula would be an unfathomable disaster. Civilian populations in both North and South Korea would probably be slaughtered; American officials believe 10,000 U.S. troops would die just in the opening days of the conflict. And if Kim Jong Un believed he was about to lose power, he’d probably unleash his nukes. That would mean more death, possibly on America’s West Coast.
There is no “best-case” scenario for the next Korean War.
In fact, if one were to attribute planning and design to Trump, one could argue that he fanned the war threat to make the dialing-down seem even more important than it is, sort of like an arsonist whose motivation is to be seen as a hero who puts out fires.
But this part of the dynamic was probably happenstance. Trump lashes out almost reflexively, so his verbal attacks against an ever-more-powerful North Korea look like a manifestation of his usual pattern. And one has to think that given his weird obsession with Obama (Trump is unduly focused on undoing his legacy) that Trump’s too-obvious desire to get a Nobel Peace Prize, like Obama, had a salutary effect.
It would be good to get a reading from the South Korean press, but the coverage I’ve been able to find in English is skewed. Conservative-leaning, meaning hard core anti-communist venues, of which I infer the Korea Times, are foaming at the mouth about how bad a deal Trump cut. whose lead story fulminates that Trump deserves a D for his performance, but not to worry, North Korea will wind up in the dustbin of history:
Kim, a king of a pariah state, is comparable to a bettor, if the wealth U.S. together with the rest of the world is a Las Vegas casino. Given time, no bettor can beat the house. Trump has been saying the North’s denuclearization is a process that may take long. That means he is opting for a long game rather than quick fix.
So it has just started so it is too early to call anyone’s victory.
In other words, Trump’s end appears lean on beef for now but, if we follow through his long game, we may find ourselves with cattle at the end.
Some foreign commentators claim the US left South Korea in lurch by canceling the war games, but you’d never guess that from the statement of President Moon. From Korea JoognAng Daily:
Moon had placed concerted efforts into mediating between the two leaders and making the summit happen. In a statement on Tuesday, he did not hold back his elation and sense of relief that the meeting, which at times seemed like it wouldn’t happen, concluded amicably with an agreement between both sides.
“The June 12 Sentosa Agreement will be recorded as a historic event that has helped break down the last remaining Cold War legacy on earth,” Moon said, referring to the resort island where the agreement was signed. “It is a great victory achieved by both the United States and the two Koreas, and a huge step forward for people across the world who long for peace.”
Moon characterized the summit as a turning point. The meeting between the two mercurial and headstrong leaders was almost unimaginable just a year earlier, when they were trading taunts and threats that many thought would erupt into a full-fledged war on the Korean Peninsula.
Other stories in South Korea report that “conservative pundits were unimpressed” and that readings from South Korean citizens were mixed, with some feeling relief that the talks had occurred, while others remained “cautious and skeptical.”
Let’s return to the idea that the main purpose of the summit was to achieve a standstill for North Korean missile and nuclear development while the North and South talked. In reality, North Korea will probably continue with R&D, but if they don’t test, they’d presumably limited confidence in anything that would add to their capabilities to a meaningful degree, but they might still be able to do a lot to increase the reliability of existing weapons.
However, what could prove to be a vast stumbling block is that the two countries are so far apart in their degree of development that it is hard to see how they could become more integrated. North Korea has a GDP per head of $600, versus over $27,000 for South Korea. It would take a massive development program to bring North Korea even up to normal emerging economy levels (Vietnam had a GDP per capita of roughly $2,200, and India, $1,700). Who is going to write those checks?
Finally, it appears Japan was very much left on the wayside, and its government is not likely to be happy about the cancellation of the war games either.
As indicated earlier, any insightful or revealing commentary from the media in Asia would be welcome (Clive, if you are having a slow day at work, perhaps a recap of headlines from the big Japanese papers?)