Jes­sica T. Mathews

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Sin­ga­pore Sham

There are two pos­si­bil­i­ties: ei­ther Pres­i­dent Trump was as ig­no­rant af­ter his June 12 meet­ing with Kim Jong-un about what North Korea has in mind when it pledges “com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of the Korean Penin­sula” as he was in March when he brushed aside warn­ings from his aides and rushed to ac­cept Kim’s in­vi­ta­tion to meet. This would mean that in the in­ter­ven­ing three months he learned noth­ing about the past quar­ter-cen­tury of failed ef­forts to stop North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram and gen­uinely be­lieves he ac­com­plished some­thing in Sin­ga­pore. Or the pres­i­dent knows that he got noth­ing. In that case, when he bragged on his way home that “this should have been done years ago” and later tweeted “There is no longer a Nu­clear Threat from North Korea,” he was sim­ply be­ing fraud­u­lent in the way that works so well for him at home. Stripped of its made-for-TV trap­pings—the walk, the flags, the solemn hand­shake, and the breath­less talk of his­tory be­ing made—noth­ing was ac­tu­ally agreed to at the sum­mit. Ev­i­dence that there had, in fact, been no meet­ing of the minds came with whiplash speed. In just over three weeks North Korea was ac­cus­ing the US, which had not changed its po­si­tion, of “gang­ster-like” de­mands. Call it Fake Diplo­macy.

Which is more dan­ger­ous—some­one so con­vinced of his abil­i­ties and so lazy that he would walk into such a ne­go­ti­a­tion with­out know­ing even the tiny bit of his­tory (sketched in the box on page 38 of this ar­ti­cle), or some­one will­ing to of­fer the world a bald-faced lie? Some­one who doesn’t try, or some­one who doesn’t care about the ac­tual out­come as long as he can sell a short-lived story of per­sonal suc­cess and move on? Un­pre­pared­ness risks costly mis­takes, such as the ones Trump made at this meet­ing. Blus­ter and sloppy, un­think­ing lan­guage risk be­ing mis­in­ter­preted by both ad­ver­saries and al­lies as be­ing se­ri­ous when it isn’t or, worse, brushed aside as a bluff when it isn’t. His­to­ri­ans still de­bate how great an ef­fect Sec­re­tary of State Dean Ach­e­son’s speech plac­ing South Korea out­side the US de­fense perime­ter had on the de­ci­sion made by Kim Il Sung, Stalin, and Mao to launch the Korean War in 1950. The phrase “com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of the Korean Penin­sula,” which got Trump so ex­cited back in March and which he con­tin­ues to mis­trans­late as “they are will­ing to de-nuke,” was, as the box re­veals, first used by North Kore­ans twenty-six years ago. To them, it has al­ways meant that North Korea would de­nu­cle­arize af­ter the United States walks away from its de­fense al­liance with South Korea, re­moves its troops from the Korean Penin­sula, with­draws the nu­clear um­brella that now de­ters an in­va­sion of South Korea, signs a peace treaty to end the Korean War, re­moves nu­clear-ca­pa­ble weapons (or per­haps its en­tire pres­ence) from an un­de­fined perime­ter of North­east Asia, and ends other “anti-DPRK hos­tile poli­cies,” pre­sum­ably in­clud­ing eco­nomic sanc­tions. All of this is cap­tured in the phrase “phased, syn­chro­nized” de­nu­cle­ariza­tion used by South Korea and China in their meet­ing be­fore the Sin­ga­pore sum­mit. Com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion can also mean to North Korea that as the world’s ninth nu­clear state—as it now con­sid­ers it­self—it will de­nu­cle­arize when the other eight do so—at best an un­likely event that lies decades in the fu­ture. Ei­ther way, in prac­ti­cal terms, the phrase, on its own, means noth­ing.

The brief joint state­ment is­sued at the end of the Sin­ga­pore sum­mit did not put a toe over the line es­tab­lished in North Korea’s many prior agree­ments with the US, with South Korea, and in sev­eral rounds of Six-Party Talks (South Korea, North Korea, the US, China, Japan, and Rus­sia). Ev­ery one of these was mean­ing­less at the time of its writ­ing (as in 1992, when North Korea agreed not to pos­sess re­pro­cess­ing plants, even as it was build­ing such a plant) or was cheated on later by Py­ongyang. Where the new doc­u­ment does not ex­actly re­peat ear­lier word­ing, its lan­guage is mushier. This time, for ex­am­ple, North Korea com­mits “to work to­ward com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of the Korean Penin­sula” (em­pha­sis added)—one step back­ward from ear­lier com­mit­ments and a mea­sure by which it is im­pos­si­ble to fail.

Most im­por­tantly, the doc­u­ment con­tains no ac­tual sub­stance—as did the 1994 Agreed Frame­work, which halted North Korea’s plu­to­nium pro­duc­tion (and on which it later cheated), or the 2005 Six-Party agree­ment (which came to noth­ing). Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pompeo clearly knew he was on shaky ground when a reporter probed about the lack of any ref­er­ence to ver­i­fi­ca­tion. With no an­swer to of­fer, he at­tacked the ques­tion as “in­sult­ing and ridicu­lous and, frankly, lu­di­crous.” Com­men­ta­tors in Sin­ga­pore end­lessly re­peated that “the de­tails” would be filled in by Pompeo and a North Korean coun­ter­part, but there is no con­tent to de­tail. If the ra­tio­nale for a sum­mit was that only heads of state could break through the lack of trust that pre­vents lower-level ne­go­tia­tors from suc­ceed­ing, it proved to be ill-founded. The Pompeo process started in the same place as prior ef­forts.

More ac­cu­rately, be­cause of rash con­ces­sions made by Trump at the meet­ing, Pompeo started in a hole, fac­ing em­bold­ened ad­ver­saries, and with shaken al­lies at his back. Fail­ing to make mean­ing­ful progress with North Korea is no shame, and there is no ques­tion that talk­ing is an im­prove­ment over es­ca­lat­ing threats of war. But with­out get­ting any­thing from North Korea, Trump gave and gave. Whether from im­pul­sive­ness or ig­no­rance, he pro­duced real losses for Amer­i­can se­cu­rity and that of South Korea and Japan.

Meet­ing with a sit­ting US pres­i­dent was a goal Py­ongyang had sought for decades. Trump gave it for free. Rather than re­main­ing silent on North Korea’s hu­man rights record in the in­ter­est of reach­ing an agree­ment, Trump need­lessly chose to make light of it, terming North Korea “rough” and adding, “It’s rough in a lot of places.” For good mea­sure, he wrapped Kim in just about ev­ery warm ad­jec­tive he could find: nice, funny, re­ally smart, wor­thy, one in 10,000, very tal­ented, loves his peo­ple, and so on. (If Trump be­lieves that Kim is as sus­cep­ti­ble to flat­tery as he is him­self, he will likely soon dis­cover his er­ror.) De­spite Trump’s own low stand­ing in the world, the net re­sult of a meet­ing, as equals, be­tween the leader of North Korea and the United States, and the praise lav­ished be­fore a global au­di­ence on Kim, was to le­git­imize a man and a regime known for to­tal­i­tar­ian rule, a dis­as­trous econ­omy, and an ap­palling record of hu­man rights abuses, and to im­mea­sur­ably raise their sta­tus world­wide. The seal of US ap­proval so lav­ishly dis­pensed—Trump even dan­gled an in­vi­ta­tion to the White House—at least un­der­mines and, more likely, de­stroys any pos­si­bil­ity of re­turn­ing to widely sup­ported sanc­tions of “max­i­mum pres­sure.”

Trump also weak­ened Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary lever­age—again with­out re­ceiv­ing any­thing in return. He called the de­fen­sive mil­i­tary ex­er­cises the US and South Korea jointly run twice each year “war games” and for good mea­sure adopted the ex­act phrase North Korea uses to de­scribe them—“provoca­tive.” He sus­pended the ex­er­cises in­def­i­nitely be­gin­ning this Au­gust, and did so with­out con­sult­ing Seoul. He also said that he’d like to with­draw all Amer­i­can forces from South Korea.

Kim must have been stunned by the rain of un­re­cip­ro­cated gifts. In Bei­jing, Xi Jin­ping too got more than he could have hoped for: with­drawal of Amer­i­can pres­sure that threat­ened to desta­bi­lize North Korea; re­moval of the pres­sure on him to crack down on Py­ongyang; and fur­ther ev­i­dence, in Trump’s de­sire to re­move US troops from Korea, of a wan­ing Amer­i­can com­mit­ment to lead­er­ship in Asia, which had al­ready been in­di­cated by Wash­ing­ton’s with­drawal last year from its pan-Asian trade agree­ment, the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship. Tokyo’s dis­may and Seoul’s shocked re­ac­tion to news of the uni­lat­eral US de­ci­sion to sus­pend mil­i­tary ex­er­cises are ev­i­dence that Xi can eas­ily in­ter­pret as yet an­other fis­sure in the once-solid bul­wark of US al­liances in the Pa­cific. As Xi spends hundreds of bil­lions to woo al­lies around Asia, most of them poor, he can only be shak­ing his head in amaze­ment at the spec­ta­cle of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent com­plain­ing that his al­lies—af­ter China, by far the two strong­est states in the re­gion—cost him too much.

Set­ting aside the un­forced er­rors of the Sin­ga­pore meet­ing, this lat­est episode in the twenty-five-year ef­fort to roll back North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram in­vites a re­think­ing of Amer­i­can strat­egy. Wash­ing­ton’s an­nounced ob­jec­tive was “com­plete, ver­i­fi­able and ir­re­versible de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.” Af­ter the meet­ing, Sec­re­tary Pompeo in­sisted that he was “hope­ful that we can achieve” “ma­jor dis­ar­ma­ment” by the end of the pres­i­dent’s term—that is, in two and a half years. North Korea un­der­stands, he added, that a deal would re­quire “in-depth ver­i­fi­ca­tion.” How likely is any of this?

Many coun­tries have given up a nu­clear weapons pro­gram at var­i­ous stages of progress, in­clud­ing South Korea, Tai­wan, Swe­den, Brazil, Ar­gentina, Egypt, Ro­ma­nia, Libya, Iraq, and Iran. Canada, Belarus, Kaza­khstan, and Ukraine have given up weapons they in­her­ited or ob­tained from others. Only one coun­try—South Africa—has given up com­pleted weapons it made it­self. F.W. de Klerk’s apartheid govern­ment de­stroyed its six nu­clear weapons in 1990, shortly af­ter it re­leased Nel­son Man­dela from prison and lifted the ban on the African Na­tional Congress. Whether the mo­tive was a com­mit­ment to non­pro­lif­er­a­tion or—more likely— an un­will­ing­ness to hand nu­clear weapons to an in­com­ing black govern­ment is un­cer­tain. What one can say with cer­tainty is that this act is ex­tremely rare. Ex­pe­ri­ence and com­mon sense say that the more a coun­try has in­vested

eco­nom­i­cally and psy­cho­log­i­cally in a nu­clear weapons pro­gram, the longer it has worked on it, and the closer it gets to suc­cess, the harder the pro­gram be­comes to give up. Ac­tual weapons are the most dif­fi­cult to sur­ren­der, even un­der se­vere ex­ter­nal pres­sure.

The de­gree to which a coun­try be­lieves it faces an ex­is­ten­tial threat is crit­i­cal from be­gin­ning to end. By all these mea­sures, North Korean dis­ar­ma­ment is ex­tremely un­likely. Its pro­gram be­gan more than half a cen­tury ago, in 1962. It suf­fered dev­as­tat­ing de­struc­tion in the Korean

War, still in the liv­ing mem­ory of many. Of­fi­cially, it is still at war with the great­est power on earth.

Its ex­treme iso­la­tion and its pro­pa­ganda ma­chine feed para­noia. It has sac­ri­ficed might­ily and suc­ceeded greatly in mak­ing a large nu­clear arse­nal that it calls “trea­sured sword.” More­over, dis­ar­ma­ment is mean­ing­less with­out ver­i­fi­ca­tion, which is a spe­cial chal­lenge for Py­ongyang. As a first step, ver­i­fi­ca­tion re­quires full dis­clo­sure of a coun­try’s weapons, ma­te­ri­als, and fa­cil­i­ties. These must then be in­spected and con­tin­u­ously mon­i­tored. In­spec­tors must be al­lowed to search for undis­closed sites. North Korea, per­haps the world’s most reclu­sive coun­try, has never even ac­knowl­edged fa­cil­i­ties be­yond a sin­gle site, though well over a dozen others are known to ex­ist. Ver­i­fi­able dis­ar­ma­ment is thus a very dis­tant hope. Even ver­i­fi­able cuts in the num­ber of war­heads, stock­piles of weapons fuel, mis­sile forces, and the op­er­a­tions of re­pro­cess­ing and en­rich­ment plants will be dif­fi­cult to achieve.

North Korea’s well-es­tab­lished pat­tern is to ratchet up ten­sion—as it did in 2017 through a string of nu­clear and mis­sile tests—and then pause (or ap­pear to pause as se­cret ac­tiv­i­ties con­tinue) to see what it can get in ne­go­ti­a­tions. This ap­pears to be where we are now with the mora­to­rium on test­ing that Kim an­nounced sev­eral months ago (see the box be­low for his April re­marks to the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee). Talks then con­tinue for months or years with grow­ing ac­ri­mony and mu­tual charges of bad faith un­til they end in grid­lock or the dis­cov­ery of cheat­ing by North Korea on an ex­ist­ing com­mit­ment. That this fa­mil­iar stage came just three weeks af­ter the Trump–Kim sum­mit re­veals how il­lu­sory its sup­posed agree­ment was.

It is time the US stops mis­lead­ing it­self by defin­ing suc­cess as dis­ar­ma­ment achieved in the near fu­ture. If it can ever be achieved—and the chances are slim—it will come at the end of a manys­tage process over a great many years, when North Korea is a more con­fi­dent, less iso­lated, and hence less bel­liger­ent coun­try than it is to­day. For now, a new pat­tern should be es­tab­lished by the US and other ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ners that sets less am­bi­tious goals on which cheat­ing can be im­me­di­ately de­tected and made vis­i­ble to the world. Re­stric­tions should be con­fined to what can be ab­so­lutely ver­i­fied from out­side the coun­try: weapons tests, mis­sile tests, and ex­ports of nu­clear ma­te­ri­als and know-how. This is far from dis­ar­ma­ment or even a roll­back. It would amount only to a par­tial stand­still.

For such a strat­egy to be suc­cess­ful, con­ces­sions made to North Korea have to be strictly ra­tioned at each stage or lever­age will be ex­hausted long be­fore ne­go­ti­a­tions reach the heart of the prob­lem. This is why Trump’s largesse in Sin­ga­pore was such an er­ror. He gave far too much for al­most noth­ing: con­tin­u­a­tion of an ex­ist­ing test­ing mora­to­rium, un­mon­i­tored de­struc­tion of pos­si­bly use­less test­ing sites, and a will­ing­ness to con­tinue talk­ing.

In ret­ro­spect, it was too op­ti­mistic to hope that Trump’s first ex­pe­ri­ence of the dif­fi­cul­ties of con­struct­ing an in­ter­na­tional agree­ment would lead him and his team to take a sec­ond look at what they are throw­ing away in the Iran deal, which dwarfs what has ever been agreed to with North Korea. He is sim­ply too prac­ticed at skim­ming the sur­face of com­plex is­sues and con­vinc­ing him­self of what­ever he wants to be­lieve. Per­haps the best hope for this sum­mit’s even­tual out­come is that, like its many pre­de­ces­sors, it will grad­u­ally dis­solve in dead­locked ne­go­ti­a­tions. Then it will be time to start again: this time with prepa­ra­tion and re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions. Mean­while, it stands as a sober­ing re­minder to the world that the cur­rent Amer­i­can pres­i­dent is ca­pa­ble of treat­ing even war-and-peace diplo­macy as per­for­mance art in the in­ter­est of per­sonal, rather than na­tional, ben­e­fit. —July 18, 2018

Kim Jong-un

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