Pushing the envelopeTalks between America and North Korea might succeed—at a terrible price
Would Donald Trump sell America’s allies down the river?
WHEN a great power promises a smaller country a “win-win” deal, diplomats mordantly joke, that means the great power plans to win twice. Yet the summit between America and North Korea in Singapore on June 12th may prove an exception: a negotiation that could conceivably allow not only the two main protagonists to preen and claim victory, but that might also please several interested observers. Both South Korea and China have high hopes for the meeting. Japan is more suspicious. But the biggest loser, if a deal is struck, is likely to be totally obscured by the flashing cameras and swooning anchors: the American-led security architecture that has brought decades of stability to Asia.
The summit is taking place in a posh hotel on Sentosa Island, a resort district connected to the rest of Singapore by bridge, cable-car and monorail. Close at hand are many golf courses, beaches, a wax museum and a Universal Studios theme park, complete with a space ride billed as an “intergalactic battle between good and evil” and “Revenge of the Mummy”, which promises a “plunge into total darkness”.
“Sentosa” is a Malay word meaning “peace” or “tranquility”. This is seen as a good omen in South Korea, where fortune-tellers and pregnant symbolism are held in high regard. The island only acquired its current name in 1972, however, with help from Singapore’s tourism board. Before that, it was known as “Pulau Blakang Mati”, which translates as “Island of death from behind”.
Diplomacy between America and North Korea has always had a surreal edge. At a powwow in 2000 in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Madeleine Albright, then America’s secretary of state, was greeted with mass callisthenics and bayonet drills. The two sides have been negotiating over the North’s nuclear-weapons programme since 1992, when Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current despot, Kim Jong Un, was in power (see timeline). The North has broken many promises to forgo nuclear arms. Korea-watchers have long debated whether the Kim regime sees nuclear weapons as vital to its survival, or rather as useful leverage over the outside world. After all, the North’s ability to pound the capital of the South, Seoul, with thousands of dug-in artillery pieces has given it decades of deterrence without nukes.
Either way, the “complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament” that America seeks is probably out of reach. But the summit could still be declared a success, as both President Donald Trump and the young Mr Kim seem keen to make it so. Simply meeting face-to-face will allow them to crow about their fortitude and foresight in forcing the other to the table.
The White House staked early bragging rights on June 4th. Team Trump marked the boss’s 500th day in office—or as aides put it, “President Donald J. Trump’s 500 days of American Greatness”—with an assertion that the American-led campaign to tighten UN sanctions on North Korea over the past 18 months is responsible for pushing the North closer than ever before to giving up its deadly arsenal. Under Mr Trump, America has pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” on the North, including threats to rain “fire and fury” on it should it persist in its intransigence.
Back in his Stalinist dystopia, Mr Kim has peddled a conflicting but equally stirring story, says a scholar from a Chinese government-sponsored think-tank who travels to North Korea several times a year. “Kim Jong Un has told the North Korean elites that when they kept testing nuclear weapons and missiles last year, the aim was to force the United States to the table,” the scholar says. “So the North Korean people think this is a victory for Kim Jong Un.”
Beyond the immediate photo-ops, however, it is not clear what the summit will yield. American veterans of Korea talks have aired all sorts of possible inducements to get Mr Kim to disarm: the loosening of sanctions, big dollops of aid and investment, a formal peace treaty to end the Korean war, establishing diplomatic relations in the form of “interests sections” (one step short of embassies). Mr Trump has talked of offering “very strong” guarantees that the Kim regime will be safe from American attack if it agrees to disarm.
The problem is that all this has been tried before. The two Koreas first forswore nuclear weapons in a solemn agreement in 1992, shortly after America removed tactical nuclear weapons from its bases in South Korea. But in 1994 the ageing “Great Leader”, Kim Il Sung, kicked out international inspectors and threatened to divert plutonium from a nuclear reactor into half a dozen primitive bombs. Under an “Agreed Framework” in late 1994 the North promised to abandon illicit work on plutonium weapons, in return for American aid, oil and civilian nuclear reactors. In 1999 the North was bribed with sanctions relief to give up missile testing, and in 2000 a summit between leaders of the two Koreas prompted talk of a visit by President Bill Clinton (in the end, he only made the trip after leaving office). By 2002 North Korea revealed it had a secret uranium weapons programme and expelled international inspectors, leading to a multilateral peace drive called the “six-party talks”. Those lasted until a nuclear test in 2006. The North tested five further nuclear devices between 2009 and 2017. North Korea also defied the UN Security Council to test ballistic missiles of increasing range, culminating last year in several tests of devices capable of hitting the American mainland.
Christopher Hill, a former American diplomat, recalls stirring language about working towards a “permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” in an agreement signed by America, China, Japan, North Korea, Russia and South Korea in 2005, as part of the six-party talks. That agreement also included North Korean promises to give up nuclear weapons, submit to international inspections, and rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) from which it had earlier stalked.
Back then, America offered explicit security guarantees that it had no intention to attack or invade North Korea with either nuclear or conventional weapons and guaranteed that it had no nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea. Even the idea of exchanging interests sections has been tried, at China’s urging, Mr Hill recalls. He worked mightily to convince a sceptical Bush administration to agree to the idea, then took it to the North in 2007. “They rejected it on the spot,” the former ambassador sighs. “The North Koreans tend to want something until they don’t want it.”
There are reasons to imagine, however, that the North may be more eager for a deal this time than it has been in the past. Though nuclear weapons remain the pillar of Mr Kim’s regime and are popular with ordinary North Koreans, the elites have also become attached to the minor economic boom over which Mr Kim has presided, says Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul. Mr Kim has even promised to embrace growth as well as defence, after years of putting weapons-building first.
Mr Kim has gone further than his forebears in giving priority to economic development, tolerating a big, semi-legal “grey market” and allowing the running of de facto private enterprises within state-owned firms. He has even encouraged private investment by his subjects. One government regulation calls for the “utilisation and mobilisation of the unused funds of residents”. Since Mr Kim took over in 2011, the economy has grown in the low single digits every year bar one, according to statistics compiled by South Korea’s central bank. Although those numbers are unreliable, they mark a striking departure from the economic collapse and widespread famine over which Mr Kim’s father presided. North Korean officials have told foreign visitors that Mr Kim hopes to emulate Vietnam, which has grown rapidly after making peace with America, in part to hedge against a rising China.
At a minimum, Mr Kim will be keen to secure some easing of sanctions. Imports of solar panels from China, which had been rising rapidly until last year as well-to-do residents of Pyongyang tried to become independent of the unreliable power supply, fell to zero in March for the first time in eight years, according to Chinese customs statistics analysed by NK News. Fuel prices spiked in early April, and NGOs have begun to notice shortages of fertiliser in the countryside. None of this will have improved the mood of North Korea’s quasi-capitalists. “These people like making money, and if they stop making money or suffer discomfort, that will be a problem for the leadership,” says Mr Lankov.
What is more, Mr Kim may see a chance of a breakthrough. North Korea has made great efforts to understand American politics in the Trump era. North Korean officials have been asking foreign contacts about such arcana as the implications of the recent Republican loss of a Senate seat in Alabama. According to the Chinese academic, the regime has decided that Mr Trump has no firm ideology and is a dealmaker unlike any president they have encountered. Against that, his recent pull-out of the Iran nuclear deal makes him look like a deal-breaker. On balance, he says, Mr Kim’s side senses opportunities worth testing. The current rivalry between America and China provides another opportunity, to play them off against each other.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, seems determined to be emollient. Despite declaring in late May that he was calling off the summit because of the North’s “open hostility”, Mr Trump warmly received one of Mr Kim’s henchmen at the White House, bearing an absurdly large letter from his boss. Soon afterwards, Mr Trump reinstated the meeting, despite the lack of any clear public commitments from the North on disarmament, for example. (The contents of the giant letter have not been disclosed.) John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, has been kept in the background, after he infuriated the North by citing Libya’s complete dismantling of its nuclear programme as a model, even though the Libyan leader who agreed to this, Muammar Qaddafi, ended up dead in a ditch.
Most importantly, Mr Trump seems to be backing away from his all-or-nothing talk. He says he no longer wants to use loaded phrases like “maximum pressure”, given how well things are going. As June 12th nears he has played down the prospects of swift success on disarmament and talked up the chances of a symbolic win, involving a peace deal formally ending the Korean war after nearly 65 years of uneasy truce. That could lead to more protracted negotiations on weightier issues—a prospect Mr Trump has endorsed by calling the summit a “get to know you” meeting.
According to the Chinese academic, Mr Kim cannot give up his entire nuclear weapons programme without pushback from the armed forces, which do not trust American security guarantees. On June 4th reports emerged that he had replaced three senior defence officials, prompting speculation that he was trying to quell opposition to his new foreign policy.
Instead, one theory holds, Mr Kim will offer Mr Trump a choice: either an immediate scrapping of missiles capable of hitting America, or a slower, step-by-step programme of the sort previously attempted, leading to the eventual dismantling of the North’s nuclear programme. That would be a trap, albeit an open one. In all likelihood, the step-by-step process would go the way its predecessors have, with North Korea benefiting from the easing of sanctions before pulling out in time to preserve its nuclear capacity. One possible fudge (and source of future disputes) would be for the North to give up nuclear weapons but to retain nuclear facilities that could be depicted as civilian. Mr Trump might find a limited deal on missiles appealing, by contrast: it would allow him to say he had kept his promise to protect America.
But a deal of that sort is a nightmare for America’s closest allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, who would be left at the mercy of North Korea’s short- and medium-range missiles, possibly tipped with nuclear bombs. Such bald proof of America’s willingness to sell out its allies, in turn, would alter the strategic balance in Asia in the long run. Friends would begin to question whether America would stand up for them in disputes with China, for example. The natural response would be to hedge bets and to reach an accommodation with China, dramatically diminishing America’s clout in the region.
China can see several ways to end up ahead after a Kim-Trump summit. If North Korea reduces its nuclear capabilities, that eases a security headache in China’s backyard. Even if North Korea may have partly faked the recent demolition of an underground nuclear test site, as American officials have claimed, China has reason to cheer Mr Kim’s promise to stop nuclear tests, which took place alarmingly close to the border between the two countries. If concessions from North Korea are matched by a reduction in America’s military presence in South Korea, “that would be double good news for China,” says Zhao Tong of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, a think-tank in Beijing.
Even if Mr Trump balks and walks away from negotiations, as he has repeatedly threatened to, America’s interests are likely to suffer. The summit seems bound to dissipate the pressure on the North, especially if it is seen to have failed because of Mr Trump’s obstreperousness. Mr Zhao says that as soon as Mr Trump agreed to meet Mr Kim, America lost the bargaining power painstakingly built up over recent years as international sanctions have tightened. According to Mr Zhao, Chinese officials believe that even if the Kim-Trump talks fall apart, “there is very little chance that the US could now launch a disarming military strike.” South Korea would be the first to protest against any such “bloody nose” attack, and China and Russia would also be loudly opposed, he predicts.
Nor do experts in the region see much chance that North Korea will face additional international sanctions, even if the summit ends in rancour. “North Korea can live with the consequences of a failed summit with all the sanctions staying in place. That’s fine. Sanctions are not going to get tougher,” says Mr Zhao. China, notably, never really believed that sanctions alone could bring about the American goal of forcing North Korea to disarm, and only strengthened them reluctantly. This week it allowed flights to resume between Pyongyang and Beijing. They had been suspended last year at the height of tensions over the North’s weapons-testing.
South Korea, too, seems likely to try to preserve its detente with the North, even if America reverts to hostility. Last week the two sides agreed to reopen a liaison office in the Kaesong industrial complex, which was shut down after a nuclear test by the North in 2016. South Korean companies have been buying up land near the demilitarised zone that divides the two countries. Some have set up their own offices for inter-Korean co-operation. “The South Koreans,” says Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS, an international think-tank, “may well find ways to work around sanctions or interpret them in a way that allows them to re-up economic engagement.”
In other words, Mr Kim has very little to lose from the summit. Mr Trump may feel that he, too, is likely to get good press from the event. But America could come out worse off, even if its president does not.