It’s time for Trump to put a little pressure on Kim — and on John Bolton
The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea has been guided to two conflicting instincts: 1) that there is no hurry in achieving denuclearization, and 2) that everything must be done all together, a so-called “grand bargain.”
The problem with this strategy, of course, is that by declaring that there is no hurry, North Korea can continue to engage in further production of fissile material both from its Yongbyon plutonium producing reactor and from enrichment facilities. It also can use the patience granted it by President Trump to engage in more research and development of delivery vehicles, namely its robust and expanding missile program.
Meanwhile, the “grand bargain” approach, compelling as it might be to those with an attention deficit disorder, is something in which the North Koreans never actually have engaged or shown any interest.
In short, to achieve meaningful progress, President Trump will need to pick up the pace of the negotiations, even if in doing so it might risk bringing the long-shot process to a head soon, quite possibly in advance of the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. North Korea is something the president counts as a major foreign policy success, even in the absence of any real achievements on the ground apart from the missile testing moratorium.
Can he do it?
Sunday’s impromptu DMZ summit suggests the two leaders want to do more. Indeed, they apparently agreed on a timetable to restart the process and to get their teams back to work.
One issue, however, is that neither leader seems to have been entirely satisfied with his own negotiating team. In Trump’s case, while he hasn’t criticized the officials involved, he has preferred to designate himself as the negotiator. In the case of Kim Jong Un, he has at various times fired his own teams (or possibly things much worse).
The North Koreans also have made clear that they prefer to deal with President Trump. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who might have done well to delegate the negotiating to others after the first summit in Singapore, has been a particular target of North Korea’s ire. The North Koreans, though not Kim personally, at various times have denounced the Pompeo for “gangster-like” tactics, a personal insult that the U.S. side, including President Trump, has chosen to ignore. It is not up to the North Koreans to choose the U.S. team, and it might be worthwhile to tell them that.
Completely missing from the weekend DMZ gathering was any mention of denuclearization, by the North Koreans and by President Trump, who may not have wanted to make his interlocutor uncomfortable during the festivities. Given that Trump’s gesture of crossing into North Korea was enormous, and one that the North Koreans have pocketed as a sign of respect for their young leader, the North Koreans need to understand that they have to deliver on some expectations.
At some point early on, there needs to be a return to what this bromance supposedly is all about. President Trump needs to make clear that North Korea will have a far better future without weapons than with them. He needs to convey clearly that, without North Korean denuclearization, there will be no economic assistance, let alone beachfront condos or Trump hotels, in North Korea’s future.
In Hanoi, the North Koreans made a bold, unprecedented offer — that is, the dismantling of the main North Korean nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. By many accounts, it appeared the North Koreans were short on details about the offer. Moreover, they appeared to want considerable sanctions relief for the gesture, regarding it as the centerpiece of their denuclearization efforts rather than as an initial down payment. After all, even the complete dismantlement of Yongbyon does not address missiles or stockpiles of fissile materials, not does it address the well-founded suspicions on the U.S. side that North Korea has additional highly enriched uranium facilities.
Still, the process has to start somewhere, and the main source of fissile material produced to date might qualify as a good place to do so. During the DMZ summit, President Trump indicated he might be willing to part with some sanctions in return for partial denuclearization.
What happens between North Korean leaders and Chinese leaders tends to stay between the two. But it could well be that the Chinese in coming to Pyongyang in June may have had a positive effect on Kim Jong Un. If so, Xi Jinping may have written himself into the script, just as the South Korean leadership did at the start of the U.S. diplomatic effort. A broader diplomatic architecture can give the Trump administration some additional and very necessary leverage in the process.
Finally, President Trump might want to have a heart-to-heart talk with national security adviser John Bolton, who has made a career of eschewing any and all discussions with the North Koreans.
During the George W. Bush administration, despite abundantly clear guidance from the president, Bolton — both as the counter proliferation undersecretary at the State Department and later as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — made no secret that he opposed the president’s effort to engage the North Koreans.
Now Bolton is at a more senior position than ever before and, if this entire “Hail Mary” with the North Koreans is going to have a chance of working, he is going to have to support the policy — and, most importantly, put his own ideological views to the side. Denuclearizing North Korea is hard enough as it is.
Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador including as U.S. ambassador to South Korea in 2004-05. He also served as State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs 2005-09 and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.
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