The Singapore Sling: summit risks sanctions fizzle

As Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un get ready to rumble in Singapore, a word of advice for President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE. In order to make history, one has to remember history. The last time a U.S. president geared up for a summit meeting with his North Korean counterpart, great dividends ensued — for Pyongyang.

In 2000, the hitherto reclusive Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, came out of his anti-social carapace and lined up world leaders for a series of summit pageantries, setting new standards in international fundraising and image makeover.

After pocketing half a billion dollars from South Korean President Kim Dae Jung for an inter-Korean summit in June, Kim Jong Il received Russian President Vladimir Putin in Pyongyang in July. It was the first-ever visit to North Korea by the top Russian (or Soviet) leader, made possible by the dramatic mood swing in the region.


Before meeting the South’s leader, Kim Jong Il paid a secret visit to China to seek political and economic cover as he was reconfiguring the geopolitical stage. Coming six years after assuming power in 1994, it was his first foreign foray as the national leader. Likewise, Kim Jong Un made his first foreign visit this March, to Beijing, on the eve of his own inter-Korean summit, six years after inheriting power.

In October 2000, Kim Jong Il sent his right-hand man to President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team Perdue proposes election police force in Georgia To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill MORE with a proposition for a summit meeting in Pyongyang. Clinton, although entirely unprepared — as President Trump appears today for his Singapore moment — was nonetheless keen on seizing the moment.

This month, Trump told Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man, General Kim Yong-chol, “[T]ake your time” (on denuclearization). He might as well have said, “Carry on.” Trump also told reporters after the White House meeting that he no longer would use the term “maximum pressure” (combination of threatened use of force, meaningful sanctions enforcement and diplomatic pressure to isolate Pyongyang), since the two sides were “getting along.” Trump even intoned that North Korea could change and reform its economy under Kim Jong Un’s stewardship.

History suggests otherwise.

Once Kim Jong Il rolled out his two-act play of provocations and post-provocation peace ploys, he reaped billions of dollars in concessions. By making another trip to China in January 2001, visiting Putin in Moscow that August, and receiving Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Pyongyang in 2002, Kim Jong Il transformed his image from a reclusive, possibly-unhinged, sybaritic tyrant to a legitimate global statesman with whom the United States could conduct nuclear business. The George W. Bush administration fell for the same trap and prematurely relaxed sanctions shortly after Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in October 2006.

Brushed aside as these high-profile pageants and negotiations unfolded were Pyongyang’s gulags, deliberate mass starvation and other crimes against humanity — the true indicators of regime nature and goals — as they may be today. By now it should be clear that a smiling Kim does not reform or denuclearization denote.

The Kim regime’s weaponization of its weirdness dates to the 1970s. Founding leader Kim Il Sung would beguile foreign visitors by coming across as not crazy but a reasonable, well-informed leader presiding over a small nation threatened by the mighty United States. Kim Jong Il revived this ruse with success in the 2000s. Kim Jong Un is following the same script.   

In recent weeks, Trump has referred to Kim Jong Un as “very honorable” and “very smart and gracious,” for no reason other than Kim’s fake gestures of calling for a summit, releasing three U.S. prisoners who never should have been detained, and decommissioning an old nuclear testing site.

What will the Trump-Kim summit achieve? It will enable Kim to compel Trump to declare “peace” and negotiate a peace treaty before any meaningful dismantlement of Kim’s nuclear programs takes place. More importantly, it will enable Pyongyang to engage the United States in another drawn-out negotiation process instead of taking steps toward a negotiated agreement. As a result, sanctions enforcement will fizzle, diplomatic pressure by United Nations member states will dissipate, and, consequently, Pyongyang will perfect its nuclear and missile capabilities.

Kim’s next target of coercion through propaganda and threat will be U.S. troops in South Korea. Their very raison d’etre compromised in a new age of “peace,” the troops will likely withdraw. Pyongyang, thus, will be emboldened to extort and censor the richer, freer and very much risk-averse South.

A revamped Pyongyang will also extort Japan and entangle the United States with more sequels to its two-act scheme. Somewhere in this cycle, the probability of limited nuclear war, by miscalculation or design, will increase.

Kim, with unfettered subvention schemes from Seoul and Beijing in mind, will call on Trump for continued sanctions-busting dialogue. He will seek follow-up summits with Trump, in North Korea and in the United States. For Trump, the temptation to consent will grow as Kim demurs and violates any agreement made in Singapore.

In countering Kim’s game, President Trump would be best served by using the law, rather than political drama, as a lever. He should tell Kim that the terms for the gradual suspension and ultimate termination of U.S. sanctions against Pyongyang are codified into law, and his hands are tied until Pyongyang takes meaningful steps toward the complete dismantlement of its nuclear programs and releases all political prisoners.  

Trump could explain that unless Pyongyang ceases counterfeiting U.S. currency and money-laundering activities, he cannot suspend sanctions even for one year. Until North Korea dismantles its weapons of mass destruction and reforms its horrific prison camps, Trump is legally bound to continue to enforce sanctions, no matter how sunny or menacing a disposition Kim puts on. Only then will a peace treaty be feasible.

If Trump speaks the truth to Kim, that he will steadfastly enforce sanctions until Kim meets the statutory requirements for easing up and finally ending sanctions, then the Singapore summit will be worth remembering. Anything less will likely mark the occasion not only as a failure in diplomacy, but as the pivotal moment that enabled a nuclear catastrophe.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. A former research associate of Harvard University's Korea Institute, he has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Korea policy. Follow him on Twitter @sungyoonlee1.