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At Singapore summit, North Korea racked up wins

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Yes, today’s comprehensive agreement is certainly historic, but it doesn’t change the nature of the North Korean regime. Instead, it purports to ensure that regime’s survival.

Of all the misimpressions American have of North Korea, the most important may be our illusions regarding what they want. They have an entire system that is focused on one principal objective: getting their people to accept the supreme leadership of one man without question. As unworthy an objective as we believe that is for a nation-state, we ought to understand that it motivates their leadership.

{mosads}We ought to recognize, especially after seven decades of dealing with North Korea, that its approach to foreign policy is not that different from its approach to dealing with its people. Their negotiating strategy has been focused on getting the rest of the world to unquestioningly support the regime’s total control.


The regime wants freedom, not for its people, but for itself. It wants the freedom to build weapons of mass destruction it can use against all enemies, foreign and domestic. It wants freedom to sell such weapons, and engage in weapons proliferation around the world. It wants to conduct criminal activities without punishment from other nations’ law enforcement agencies. It wants to counterfeit other nations’ currencies, conduct cyberattacks, and defraud corporations to obtain the economic benefits its system cannot provide. It wants to hide behind its sovereign status under international law while ignoring the legitimacy of other nations’ laws. It wants to enslave its own people without being criticized by the United States or the United Nations for human rights abuses. Most importantly, it wants to do these things without a challenge, a complaint or criticism.

Of course it doesn’t like it when the world is so fed up with its behavior that U.N. resolutions are adopted, sanctions imposed and military pressure is brought to bear. President Trump may have surprised the North Koreans — his “maximum pressure” policy could have involved military options. That’s the point when North Korea decided to shift its posture, put on a charm offensive, and turn the world’s attention to talk of peace. The American people, it knows, demand that our leaders exercise every opportunity to pursue peace. President Trump had little choice but to respond positively.

Nevertheless, he should keep his eyes open to its negative consequences.

The results of the current talks cannot be fully assessed yet, but North Korea has already achieved many successes.

Having the world’s media call Kim Jong Un a “world leader” pursuing peace is certainly one. Having the U.S. and its allies applaud, as key individuals subject to international sanctions are feted at the Olympics and welcomed to the White House, is another. These paved the way for stalling some sanctions and guaranteed less aggressive enforcement of sanctions still in place — that should be seen as an achievement. In the build-up to the summit meeting, international criticism of North Korea’s criminal international operations and human rights abuses have been muted.

In President Trump’s press conference in Singapore, he said the denuclearization process agreed to will undoubtedly take a long time. North Korea has repeatedly shown it takes advantage of time for advancing nuclear, missile and cyber capabilities while the world is focused elsewhere. Has this stopped in the buildup to negotiations? No.

Finally, something that we find hard to assess but that Kim Jong Un knows, is how talks can shore up his political strength when he is weak at home. Just like the boost the 1994 Agreed Framework gave his father, the agreements in Singapore will enhance the perception of Kim Jong Un’s invulnerability at home and divert attention away from the country’s severe economic and political woes.

Another thing North Korea learned from the Agreed Framework of 1994 is that when the U.S. enters into an agreement where it provides actual physical benefits, U.S. policy toward North Korea will be focused almost exclusively on performing those commitments. That process is made easier by not criticizing North Korea at the same time. During the years of implementation of the Agreed Framework, U.S. attention to North Korea’s internal instability atrophied. We busied ourselves with constructing the light water reactors we had promised to the North, while they clandestinely sought alternative sources of nuclear weapons technology and capability.

From what we have been told today, Kim signed on to a commitment to completely denuclearize, and we have offered security assurances — in the press conference, President Trump mentioned stopping military exercises, working toward troop reductions in Korea, and possibly changing the deployments of bombers in Guam, none of those minor concessions.

Plus, we committed to as yet unspecified inducements to enhance North Korea’s economy and promote prosperity for the regime, with some sanctions being shelved out of respect for the negotiating process and others to be lifted as denuclearization proceeds. As the president describes it, the implementation of much of the Singapore agreements rests on faith — on the good will generated through the negotiation process. Implementation procedures have not been worked out but deferred to further talks, some of which he expects to attend. So this is the start of a unique and peculiar process.

It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how the U.S. will respond if North Korea undertakes a provocation like the many it has launched in the past — for example, an attack on a South Korean island, or shooting down an American military plane in international airspace. If North Korea is true to form, it will not be long before they engage in such a test of American security guarantees, even though the president will certainly see it as a violation of the spirit of these agreements.

How the United States will work through its constitutional processes to guarantee the security and survival of a totalitarian dictatorship remains to be seen. The congressional debates alone will be filled some of the most spectacular logical contortions.

And how a communist party supporting a totalitarian regime can compel loyalty without telling its population that their suffering is justified by a struggle against a foreign enemy will present similar mind-bending realignments of propaganda in North Korea.

But this assumes that these agreements will actually have a sustainable life of their own; they could always be discarded, ignored or violated, even before the signers reach home. Political developments do not end with signed agreements, and we have no idea what the future holds for their implementation. An achievement that seems so unbelievable today may be prove to be an accomplishment that is impossible tomorrow. Only time will tell.

Chuck Downs is former deputy director for regional affairs and congressional relations in the Pentagon’s East Asia policy office. From 2001-2008 Downs served on the board of directors of the United States Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and was its executive director from 2008-2011. Downs is the author of “Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy” (AEI Press, Washington, 1999).

Tags Agreed Framework Donald Trump Donald Trump East Asia Kim Jong-un Korea North Korea Nuclear program of North Korea Nuclear proliferation Politics of North Korea

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