“Jaw jaw jaw,” Winston Churchill once commented, “is better than war war war.” (Quote works better if, like Winston, you rhyme “jaw” and “war”) And that is certainly true in the case of North Korea and the United States. But sooner or later one hopes the jawing leads somewhere. Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un talking in Singapore is better than trash-tweeting or preparing for combat. But there are reasons why our hopes that the Trump-Kim Jung Un meeting in Singapore next month will result in a real, positive change on the Korean Peninsula may be dashed. There are reasons to be skeptical that the high profile, very public meeting will not go as well as the Trump administration hopes.
1) North Korea’s motives. The Trump administration and many American commentators are certain that the increasingly punitive economic sanctions initiated by the Obama administration and tightened by Trump have caused so much pain to the North Korean regime that it has decided that giving significant ground on its nuclear weapons program will hurt less than the status quo.
That plausible explanation looks a little different if one assumes that North Korea is no longer developing a nuclear capability but already has an arsenal of several nuclear warheads and both medium and intercontinental range missiles to deliver them. Perhaps the North Korean regime now feels confident enough in its status as a self-proclaimed nuclear power that it can try to trade largely meaningless concessions for real economic gains. The skeptic would point to the promised public destruction of a major nuclear test site as a case in point. From the North Korean perspective, why not stage a major media event with lots of explosions and excitement to get rid of a facility that is no longer needed and may be in danger of collapsing on itself anyway, and package it as a big concession?
2) What is the bottom line? Typically when two nations bargain, each has prepared a maximum position and a “real” position – the minimum it will actually agree to. The maximum position may or may not be announced before negotiations begin; it is usually a major mistake to reveal your “real” position. But perhaps the United States has done just that. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on CBS Sunday Morning, What President Trump wants is to see the North Korean regime get rid of its nuclear weapons program is completely and in totality and in exchange for that, we are prepared to ensure that the North Korean people get the opportunity that they so richly deserve.” Add an insistence on inspection and verification, and that is probably very close to the United States’ maximum position, the starting point in the negotiations. BUT later on Fox’s Sunday morning talk show, he said “… make no mistake about it: America's interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into L.A. or Denver or to the very place we are sitting here this morning,...” That’s a much more modest goal that doesn't require complete disarmament but only abandoning long range missiles.
Based on what Secretary Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have said, the U.S. will initially offer promises that we won’t seek regime change and will encourage private investment in the North’s infrastructure.
Whatever Kim Jung Un expects to get out of the meeting with President Trump, it has to be a lot more than that. If a primary motive behind the North Korean nuclear program has always been to assure the survival of the regime by deterring an attack, it is hard to see why the Koreans would agree to abandon their program, especially in light of the U.S. pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal (among other international agreements) and National Security adviser John Bolton’s reference last month to “the Libyan model.” Libya, like Iraq, dropped its nuclear program and then saw regime change. That’s Pyongyang’s nightmare, not an enticing offer. The core of North Korea’s juche ideology is self-reliant Marxist-Leninist-Kim Jung Un Thought, not American corporate capitalism. The Capitalist and The Militarist are bogeymen North Korean parents use to scare their kids into behaving.
The North Koreans have not said anything publicly about what they might want, either as bargaining ploy or “really.” We do know that in the past North Korea has sought formal recognition as a nuclear weapons state, significant increases in international aid in the form of food and oil, a treaty ending the Korean war, and withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. We also know that North Korea has agreed in the past to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula but what that term means in Pyongyang is not necessarily the same thing Washington and Seoul think it means. And certainly North Korea would love to see the U.S. end military cooperation with South Korea, which would greatly increase North Korea’s leverage in any talks about reunification.
By the way, while we are constantly reminded that North Korea is “opaque” and “mysterious” and it is ever so hard to know what they are really up to, the United States must appear opaque and mysterious to Pyongyang. Top government officials like Bolton and Pompeo say one thing one day and walk it back the next, or even in the same interview. The White House responds to questions about officials’ statements by reiterating that President Trump is the best negotiator. If most American analysts find Trump unpredictable and prone to surprising reversals of position, imagine the difficult life of a North Korean “American” expert tasked with figuring out the American positions.
3) The bargaining about bargaining has already begun and it appears the United States is on the defensive. Negotiations are pretty obvious: people sitting at a table making formal proposals and counterproposals. Bargaining is a much broader concept. Bargaining begins long before formal negotiations, when the parties haggle over the terms and conditions of the negotiations (such as where and when, the shape of the table, who attends, etc.) and begin to signal what their positions might be.
Preliminary bargaining can also be a test of strength. “Strength” in bargaining is a measure of how much someone needs a deal. Any competent bargainer will do what President Trump has done: say that if the negotiation doesn’t go well, he will just get up and leave. Since threatening to pick up and go home is “Bargaining 101,” no one automatically believes it. When North Korea’s unexpectedly objected to the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises and flatly rejected the notion the notion that they would have to completely dismantle their nuclear program just to get access to private American contractors, it seemingly rattled official Washington and cast a deep pall on the rosy propsects of the summit and the White House is busily back pedaling on the more extreme statements by Bolton and Pompeo. All the chatter about the summit not happening and how damaging that would be to the President after he has placed so much emphasis on how wonderful the meeting with Kim Jung Un will be would seem to indicate to the North Koreans that the United States really wants – perhaps even needs – the summit. There is little evidence to suggest that Kim will be chagrined or lose face if the summit doesn’t happen.
The resulting impression that the U.S. needs the summit more than North Korea clearly puts the North in a superior position. That probably means the United States will have to make more concessions than North Korea to reach an agreement.
4) Going it alone can be lonely. Beginning in 2003, the United States dealt with North Korea in a series of “Six Party” talks that included the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. That avoided giving North Korea the one on one meeting with the U.S. that Pyongyang had demanded for years, bringing North Korea’s supporters, China and Russia, to the table to put pressure on Pyongyang, and making sure the U.S. and its allies, Japan and South Korea, were on the same page. Those talks failed to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, either because the negotiators were inept or because North Korea was so intent on developing the weapons that nothing would deter them.
But the alternative may not be any effective at bridging the chasm of hostility between the U.S. and North Korea. But it has already led the United States to reverse a long held policy of refusing a direct meeting with the North and it threatens to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea and Japan, both of whom could find their interests ignored at the summit.
4) Scaling Mt. Everest solo. Every expedition to the Himalayas relies on teams of Sherpas to carry the heavy baggage, set up base camps, and guide the climbers along the path. Most international negotiations are equally reliant on sherpas (the term of art for the diplomats involved in preparing meetings.) Most international meetings of heads of state or foreign ministers are well prepared ahead of time and usually the actual meetings are the venue for settling the most crucial and sensitive issues. And the principals in those meetings are typically very well briefed by their sherpa team and know quite well what is on the other side’s mind and what are the available options for reaching an agreement. If the meeting is between allies rather than adversaries, or a large international conference, the sherpas may have already drafted the final communique before the meetings begin and, aside from some editorial tweaks to the final document, the meeting itself is a largely symbolic photo op.
It is safe to assume that North Korean sherpas have been busily prepping for the Singapore summit and have provided Kim Jung Un and his closest advisers with their best estimate of the American positions and expectations, based on both intelligence sources and their personal experience with their American counterparts. But on the U.S. side the sherpa camp is pretty empty. Their is no United States Ambassador to South Korea so no one to cogently channel the expertise of the staff into preparation for the summit; the senior State Department officials with the most experience on Korean issues have left the Department; the National Security Council lacks members with substantive knowledge or experience in Korean affairs; and it is well known that Mr. Trump is not inclined to read complicated or extensive briefing papers. It is possible to summit Mt. Everest alone, even without oxygen bottles, but only the most extraordinarily experienced and fit climbers will try it.
5) Out on a limb.
I think the summit will take place because I think the United States has a lot to lose if it doesn’t and North Korea has nothing to lose if it does.
I think there will be a final agreement from the talks, with ringing platitudes about avoiding provocations and settling differences peacefully and peaceful reunification. There will not be a document outlining concrete, verifiable steps that both sides will take or any specific terms of Agreement.
I think both sides will claim a great propaganda victory and within the year we’ll be back into the exchange of colorful, inventive, threats and insults.