The meeting between President Trump and Kim Jung Un has come and gone. The dust is still settling, although there are concerns that whatever successes this meeting may have achieved towards a greater end, President Trump will be tempted to milk it for all it’s worth rather than close the deal. The two upsides now versus the failed Iran “deal” that wasn’t signed by anyone is that Republicans are demanding that any agreement between the United States and North Korea be submitted to Congress for approval as a Treaty, and the State Department reiterated that there will be no sanctions relief until North Korea denuclearizes.
However, there is no talk about enforcement mechanisms and inspections; less clear are the consequences for other types of bad behavior that are not nuclear. President Trump refused to answer the question regarding inspections, and his response concerning Otto Warmbier likewise showed that there will be no specific consequence to the Kim regime for the tortured death of the US citizens. Although the Warmbier lawsuit is proceeding, any judgment will likely not be collected due to political considerations. Several other points are worth noting:
- North Korea has tried to get a photo op/meeting with the US President for 70 years
- In the past, North Korea has promised to denuclearize 8 times
- After the Bill Richardson accord, North Korea waited 9 years, then cheated.
- Bill Clinton’s policies ultimately legitimized North Korea on the international stage as a nuclear power.
- Nothing has significantly changed: The United States was not in fact in a position to strike Kim, sparking wider aggression. Rather, as in the past, Kim, who had read “The Art of the Deal” was seeking temporary sanctions relief to enrich himself and his cronies.
- There is reason to believe that the allegedly collapsed nuclear site that was supposed to have been destroyed and that only journalists were allowed to visit was not actually destroyed. (If North Korea faked the detonation of its nuclear site, it is being even more conniving and underhanded than the administration gives it credit for)
- There are actually many other nuclear sites that are nearly impossible to inspect, not to mention NOrth Korean reactors and secret sites in Syria.
- China is said to have benefited the most from this photo op. Besides legitimization as a power player who is sought as a partner in the arrangement of this summit and without whom this development would never have happened, China used the hectic preparations for the meeting in Singapore to place troops and arms in the controversial islands in the South China Sea. This has led to an increased French military presence in the Indian-Pacific. In recent weeks, it also utilized its growing power to bully African countries into giving up their alliances with Taiwan. All of this is in the contest of anti-China protests in Vietnam, which may aggravate tensions between the two countries. As the United States meanwhile is scoring legal anti-trust victories against China, and looking to place additional tariffs over China’s goods, China may be looking to use the opportunity with the summit to retaliate as part of its long-term strategy.
The optics of the summit favored North Korea, no matter what ardent Trump defenders have to say. North Korea has more to win from this agreement. The United States only wins if North Korea follows through with its promises; North Korea wins just by getting a seat at the table. Furthermore, appearing to play nice with the big kids will likely help Kim score points with China, which was dissatisfied in recent months with Kim’s rhetorical escalation and mounting tensions between the United States and North Korea. Deescalation is optimal for China’s strategy; however, Kim as a weapon against the United States, is of more value than Kim coopted by Trump’s vision of prosperity for North Korea or tempting economic promises. For that reason, China will continue to back North Korea’s “game” to the extent there is one, while encouraging more amicable optics.
Likewise, talks of a reunified Korea are all rhetoric. South Korea is not actually interested in a flow of refugees; it is also unclear which government would rule the country. Kim would not wish to give up power. Likewise, in the event of Kim’s collapse, both South Korea and China would have to contend with a flow of refugees. While a portion of the country is slowly opening up to the benefits of South Korea’s economic prosperity, the level of brainwashing that has occurred over generations should not be underestimated and would present a serious problem. China, therefore, has a vested interest in propping up Kim as its vassal, at least for the time being. North Korea also benefited from the unfortunate signals of exceptional warmth and enthusiasm for the murderous regime that have emanated from the administration. Even if some of them were done in jest, they have been masterfully turned into propaganda for internal consumption and self-aggrandizement by Kim. These signs include:
- A seemingly supportive video from the White House, which was mistaken for propaganda from Pyongyang by some reporters
- President Trump’s comment that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat, which is dangerously misleading
- The unilateral and unexpected announcement of suspension of training exercises between the United States and South Korea, which caught Seoul unawares (apparently that was President Trump’s own decision which just happened). That was mishandled, because the culture of South Korea, Japan, and other partners in that region is such that they prefer advance coordination in terms of steps that affect these sensitive relationships. Likewise, the suspension of these exercises without preconditions from North Korea sends a signal of trust that the Kim regime simply has not earned yet, as well as US weakness and desperation for a “win”. Likewise, the United States failed to clarify what this suspension actually entails.
- Flying a US flag besides North Korea, which legitimizes the rogue regime
- President Trump’s effusive praise for Kim Jung Un despite his brutality inside the country, assorted human rights violations around the world, illegal arms trade in Africa and elsewhere, cyberattacks against the United States, murder of a US national, and much more. Even if such rhetoric coming from President Trump who’s also previously verbally attacked and made fun of the “Rocket Man” is ultimately meaningless, it empowersdictators around the world and gives them hope for scoring “wins” with the help of the administration if only they say the right thing. They will fill justified in threatening the US, attacking friends and allies of the US, sowing chaos around the world, and mistreating their own citizens with impunity so long as they virtue signal whatever grabs the headlines.
- North Korea’s state TV, in a propaganda coup, showing President Trump (perhaps jokingly) saluting a North Korean military officer. That sort of levity may have its place, but cognizance of how it may be misused by adversaries for what is a moment of triumph after decades of efforts to achieve precisely this accomplishment is of utmost importance.
Interesting, these denouements are dismissed by the apologists of the current administration’s quirks, claiming a major victory though at the very least it is too early to draw conclusions. Pointing out that President Obama would never have gotten away with such flourishes during his negotiations with Iran are likewise brushed off with the “pallets of cash” argument. Supporters of the summit believe that Iran is far worse than North Korea; indeed, in terms of aggression and outright damage Iran has managed to wreak around the world, that may very well be true. North Korea, however, is a far more closed society, with a much greater level of brainwashing and popular buy-in into the state machinery. Likewise, North Korea’s nuclear program is far more advanced; its scientists have achieved real progress in terms of ballistic missiles and biological and chemical weapons, where Iranian programs are in many ways still rudimentary.
Iran and North Korea may have different goals, but North Korea is at least as dangerous, and much less predictable. Likewise, the pallets of cash argument is irrelevant, as the US ultimately returned Iranian money, frozen for decades to Iran. That action empowered Iran to assist terrorist and engage in destruction in the Middle East and elsewhere; and the money should have gone to compensate the victims of Iranian terror and brutality after a slew of relevant decisions. However, we did not “pay” Iran to do anything; and we do not have an equivalent issue with North Korea, so in terms of having good judgment that argument is not worth making. There are other things that we can do to empower North Korea financially which will make more sense in the context, and of course, hopefully the administration will avoid doing them.
Still, even at this point in time the Summit with Kim served as nothing but distraction from the focus on the Iranian regime, which has been a close partner with Kim and benefited greatly from North Korean expertise in nuclear programming as well as ballistic missiles. Interestingly, the one prediction from the enthusiasts of this meeting – that tough rhetoric against Kim which allegedly brought him to the table along with promises of economic boons – did not have the intended effect on the Iranian ayatollahs, who, rather than being deterred by this development, ramped up their rhetoric on the future of the nuclear program, and have shown signs of actively seeking to purchase uranium for enrichment, in Africa and elsewhere. Perhaps the Iranian regime has had a hand in Kim’s suddenly supplicable attitude, playing off a good cop bad cop scenario against the White House, while keeping the President distracted with an opportunity to win another shiny medal.
Or perhaps the regime feels emboldened by what it perceives as American weakness and willingness to give away a lot (from the perspective of isolated and illegitimate regimes) for nothing but promises in return. Regardless, Iran, Russia, China, and other states are using Kim’s meetings with Trump to promote their own agendas just as they have always used North Korea towards that goal. Whether or not North Korea ever achieves any level of success in the lifting of sanctions, the meeting has served its purpose in effectively dividing the Americans critical of this move and its execution and the enthusiastic and defensive supporters rallying around the president – a move straight out of the Islamic Republic’s playbook, successful for many years, particularly at the time of the nuclear deal.
Indeed, this initiative bears the hallmarkes of a Tehran’s intelligence operation. No matter the outcome, the critics who are urging caution are being attacked and berated who believe in Trump’s infallibility and best judgment when it comes to foreign policy. The fact that his national security adviser has been largely isolated from the process, and that the Secretary of State Pompeo, while influential with the president, is tasked with executing the President’s foreign policy, seems to escape those who believe that President Trump may not have taken nuances of this sensitive and challenging situation into consideration.
For that reason, the Congress and others active in foreign policy should prepare for a worst case scenario: a deceptive Kim regime which will lay dormant for years if necessary, after scoring what it and its backers may see as a major victory, before returning to the execution of its long term plans, an emboldened Iran which seeks to divide President Trump’s advisers and supporters and weaken the United States at a moment when it’s on the verge of seriously going after the regime, the hard left which will utilize this opportunity to peddle the nuclear deal while looking to score political points the moment the Kim gambit fails to deliver, and many other adversarial regimes benefiting from the ample propaganda opportunities this development has accorded them.
All of this is coming at a time when the administration is engaging in a trade war with China, Canada, and the European Union, is in the process of renegotiating NAFTA with limited progress, has engaged in verbally tense and optically bad moments with its European counterparts, is trying to get the Europeans to up the ante on anti-Iranian sanctions, and to withdraw European companies from Iran at a threat of secondary sanctions, while also dealing with Turkey’s demands in Syria, and continuous aggression by Iran, her proxies, and the Assad regime, who, despite Israel’s attacks on their targets, continue to carry on..
There is no real undoing of the propaganda moments, but the administration can learn from its mistakes and create a strategic vision for this line of foreign policy, which includes concrete benchmarks for delivery by the Kim regime, as well as action items for dealing with the unintended beneficiaries of Kim’s surprising rise on the international scene. Likewise, close coordination with Japan, South Korea, and other allies who may be directly affected by this situation may help with the appearance of a more cohesive coalition, which the adversaries will find much harder to attack. Coordination of next steps will portray us as strong allies and serious actors, who understand the downsides of trying to work and granting even an iota of legitimacy to rogue and cunning regime leaders such as Kim. In the future, we should spend more time praising and supporting our friends on issues that matter, resolving our differences quietly and diplomatically, and showing firmness and resolve while dealing with adversarial powers. We should also not overestimate the scope of any successes that may arise from this venture. Even if North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear arsenal, it may renege on this agreement at any moment without consulting us, and even without this arsenal remains a serious threat to our security and world peace and stability.