What Trump can learn from Reagan about negotiating with North Korea

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Friday’s announcement that North and South Korea will work to formally end 65 years of hostilities and to denuclearize their peninsula is a tantalizing development. But the fact that Pyongyang signed a similar treaty with Seoul in 1992 and began violating it almost immediately should chasten our hopes of progress. After all, across three generations of Kim family despots, North Korea has confounded world leaders and almost every American president.

Pyongyang’s capture of the USS Pueblo spy ship in 1968 led to year-long captivity for 82 sailors, the execution of one of them and international embarrassment for President Lyndon Johnson. The next year, North Korea shot down a U.S. surveillance plane and killed 21 airmen, leaving President Richard Nixon unable to respond effectively. In 1976, North Korean troops axed to death two American soldiers trimming a tree in the Demilitarized Zone; the Ford administration responded with a “reconnaissance in force” that cut down the tree but otherwise left North Korea unpunished.

{mosads}In 1994, North Korea signed an “Agreed Framework” with the Clinton administration, promising to halt its nuclear program, but began cheating almost immediately with a covert uranium enrichment program; few years later, Kim Jong Il wooed Secretary of State Madeline Albright to Pyongyang in 2000 for a champagne toast and tantalized President Bill Clinton with the prospect of strategic concessions that Kim had no intention of granting.  


Now President Donald Trump has offered Kim Jong Un a gift that Pyongyang desperately desires but that no other U.S. president was willing to grant: a bilateral summit. For Kim, the very fact of the meeting is a victory. He will appear before the world as an equal with the American president, both of them representing nuclear-armed nations.

Whether the summit will be good for the United States depends on whether Trump can secure meaningful benefits for America and meaningful concessions from North Korea.

He would do well to adopt some lessons from President Ronald Reagan, who mastered negotiations with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Of course, Trump is no Reagan and Kim is no Mikhail Gorbachev; the characters of the leaders and the circumstances of their nations are very different. Yet, Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union still offers helpful principles.  

First, “distrust and verify.” Reagan often intoned the old Russian proverb “trust but verify,” in reminding Gorbachev of the importance of a verification regime for monitoring compliance with any agreements. In the case of North Korea, trust is not warranted. Pyongyang has a perversely perfect record on international agreements related to its nuclear program: It has broken every single one. Whether the North-South denuclearization agreement in 1992, the Agreed Framework in 1994, the Pyongyang Declaration in 2002, or the Six-Party Talks agreement in 2005, Pyongyang has consistently violated its oaths and betrayed its negotiating partners. Any agreement that tempts Trump must be include strict verification standards.

Second, do personal diplomacy, but don’t personalize the outcome. Reagan appreciated that diplomacy must include leaders personally connecting with each other, as he and Gorbachev found in their first meeting in Geneva in 1985. But Reagan also knew this personal chemistry should not turn into personal aggrandizement. When he and Gorbachev came very close in their 1986 Reykjavik summit to a historic agreement to abolish nuclear weapons, Reagan refused Gorbachev’s demands that the United States abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative to counter ballistic missiles. While abolishing nuclear weapons appealed to Reagan personally, he knew that preserving SDI was in America’s best interests.

Third, don’t relinquish your leverage. Even while negotiating with Gorbachev, Reagan maintained pressure on the Soviet Union on various fronts, such as building up the U.S. military, arming the Islamic warriors resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, supporting dissidents inside the Soviet Union, and calling on Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. The Trump administration has launched some promising new sanctions on North Korea but it will take time for Kim to feel their bite. Trump should maintain those sanctions and even tighten them further.

Fourth, take the initiative and expand the agenda. While the Soviets wanted to confine their negotiations to arms control, Reagan insisted on broadening the agenda to include other issues such as human rights and religious freedom in the Soviet Union, and nefarious Soviet activities in Latin America, Africa and Asia. These issues played to America’s strengths and put the Soviets on the defensive. In contrast with North Korea thus far, Kim has the initiative and has been setting the agenda; Trump should demand that the talks include items Kim wants to avoid, such as human rights, religious freedom and North Korea’s malevolent behavior such as currency counterfeiting, cyberhacking, illicit weapons proliferation and Japanese abductees.

Highlighting the Kim regime’s horrific torment of its own citizens will bring pressure on the regime where it is most vulnerable: its rule by terror, rather than consent.

Fifth, stay aligned with allies. Reagan spent even more time managing relations with allies than he did negotiating with the Soviets; he knew that for all of their vexations, allies such as Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom are a source of strength for America. Trump faces some significant challenges here, partly of his own making, as from the left South Korea seems to be embracing Kim, while from the right Japan urges a harder line. Trump should devote himself first to repairing ties with South Korea and Japan so that, when he meets with Kim, it is with a united front.  

Finally, don’t schedule a summit until the circumstances are ripe. Reagan didn’t meet with a Soviet counterpart until November 1985, almost five years into his presidency. During that waiting period he focused on restoring American strength and bringing pressure on the Soviet Union to produce a reformist leader — Gorbachev — with whom he could negotiate. Trump should not meet with Kim until North Korea is sufficiently desperate that its gangster-in-chief is ready to come to the table and make meaningful concessions.  Otherwise, Trump risks looking more like Neville Chamberlain than Ronald Reagan.

William Inboden is associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs,executive director of the Clements Center for National Security, and a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, all at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously worked as a policy planning staff member and religious-freedom special adviser in the U.S. Department of State and as senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

Tags Bill Clinton Donald Trump Kim Jong Un Mikhail Gorbachev North Korea Ronald Reagan

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