Throwing some cold water on all of the Korean summit optimism

Throwing some cold water on all of the Korean summit optimism
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The extraordinary development of Secretary of State nominee and CIA Director Mike PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE secretly meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang is a measure of the dizzying pace of diplomacy and rare optimism about the future of the Korean Peninsula.

No less, Pompeo’s efforts reflect the hope of a “Nixon to China” type transformational diplomacy in Trump meeting with Kim. 

Trump, who views himself as the ultimate dealmaker, has made solving the North Korea nuclear problem a showcase of his foreign policy. It is a “problem from hell,” as a former secretary of State describe the Balkans in the 1990s, one whose solution has eluded four U.S. presidents, from George H.W. Bush through Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden hits new low in Gallup poll Biden's belated filibuster decision: A pretense of principle at work Obama, Springsteen releasing book based on their podcast MORE, over the past quarter century.


Is it different this time? Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign must be given credit for transforming the situation from one that only five months ago appeared on the brink of war to one that may be ripe for a diplomatic resolution.

Unprecedented comprehensive economic sanctions that are starting to hit the North Korean economy, pressure from China and fear of Trump’s threats of military action combined with a relatively friendly left-leaning government in Seoul appear to have — at least for now — silenced Kim’s ballistic missile and nuclear tests. 

Gone are Kim’s boasts about how North Korea is a nuclear state. Instead, he suddenly ramped up diplomacy, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and inviting South Korean President Moon Jae In and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE to summits. 

Almost on a daily basis, we are showered with snowflakes of peace. President Moon tells us the North-South summit on April 27 will focus on turning the armistice into a peace treaty, that the two Koreas' summit will include a statement on denuclearization.

In typical impulsive fashion, Trump has given the two Koreas his “blessing to discuss the end of the war." Moon tells us that Kim Jong Un is OK with U.S. troops remaining in South Korea, so long as the U.S. does not have a “hostile policy” toward North Korea and provides it with security guarantees.


But we need to carefully unpack all that, as it all contains the potential for the promise of diplomatic resolution to literally blow up in our faces.

First, the peace treaty: The 1953 armistice remains in place because it reflects a truce and a heavily-armed standoff. Korean press reports that Seoul is negotiating an announcement “to ease military tensions and end a military confrontation.”

But what does a peace treaty mean when both sides remain armed to the teeth and there are 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea? What value is a piece of paper that renounced the use of war absent a process to begin mutual force reductions and dismantle Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles and nukes that have Seoul and Tokyo within range?

It is folly to simply declare peace without taking the difficult steps to end confrontation as the United States and the Soviet Union did at the end of the Cold War. 

Moreover, the United States and China are signatories to the armistice and, along with the two Koreas, would need to approve a peace treaty. But to sign a peace treaty with North Korea, the United States would need to first have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. 

In a similar vein, President Moon tells us that Kim is prepared to completely denuclearize and only asks that the U.S. “abandon its hostile policy.” But does anyone really believe that Pyongyang will give up its nukes if the U.S. promises to be nice?

With regard to security guarantees, first there was Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons, and then we helped unseat him.

Then, there was Ukraine, to whom the U.S. signed a security guarantee when they gave up inherited Soviet nukes before looking the other way when Putin invaded Crimea. So if you are Kim Jong Un, what is a U.S. security guarantee worth? 

Like the Trump-Kim summit itself, all this frothy talk of peace and harmony turns diplomacy on its head. Summits and peace treaties usually come toward the end of diplomatic negotiations. It is a bit like both Washington and Seoul have decided they want dessert before they have even had an appetizer.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) raised the concern, “that the president, without a clear or coherent strategy will buy a pile of magic beans, accepting an agreement, any agreement that allows him to declare victory.”

One scenario of concern is that Trump may get sandbagged into an agenda shaped by the Koreans. The North-South summit comes first, and Moon’s going public with foolish stuff like a peace treaty signaled to us that Moon is looking for a substantive North-South reconciliation agenda.

To "legitimize" it, they are talking about a joint declaration on denuclearization. I fear they will announce that Kim has agreed to a freeze, which will, of course, be presented as an interim step toward denuclearization.  

Where does such a scenario leave Trump, with the agenda shaped before he even walks into the room with Kim?

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.