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How Trump’s reality-show diplomacy with North Korea could backfire

Summitry without real background negotiations can lead to embarrassment and missteps.

- June 30, 2019

Editors’ note: This piece was originally published on Jan. 10, 2019. After President Trump’s weekend meeting with Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone (DMZ), much of this analysis by Van Jackson is relevant again.

North Korean officials quietly met with U.S. diplomats in Vietnam. Not to discuss arms control or denuclearization — North Korea hadn’t ceded ground on either issue or even entertained negotiations. No, these talks focused on the venue for a second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Does this mean Trump-style diplomacy is working? Not so fast — it’s important to acknowledge that decisions made today can lock future U.S. leaders into unrealistic goals and narrow the options available to them. As I explain in my recent book about the nuclear confrontation, the eruption of the 2017 crisis had more to do with long-running historical processes — including decades of diplomacy — between the United States and North Korea than it did the leadership attributes of Trump and Kim.

Where diplomacy stands

After Trump and Kim met in June 2018, North Korea isolated Trump by praising him as a leader while blaming his administration for the lack of progress in the months that followed. Kim sent personal letters to Trump flattering him and said he’s willing to meet Trump “anytime.”

Yet there is no process in place to contain, much less roll back or eliminate, North Korean nuclear weapons. U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun tried but was unable to negotiate with his Foreign Ministry counterpart. North Korea insists on sanctions relief and other unspecified U.S. reciprocity measures — or it may resume missile testing. Kim’s 2019 New Year’s Day speech affirmed he won’t unilaterally disarm, and he accused the United States of failing to “keep the promises it made” in June.

Four ways Trump summitry can make things worse

It appeared Trump and Kim were planning to meet again in 2019, but without any meaningful preparation. In 2018, a lack of preparation led to reality-show diplomacy — the pageantry of high-level summitry but without the prior coordination to ensure common ground on follow-up steps, as Mira Rapp-Hooper summarized here at the Monkey Cage.

The Singapore summit’s three big takeaways

An ad hoc summit displaces real diplomacy. Although it is unlikely Kim would give up North Korea’s nuclear capability — it’s too important to his regime’s security — there are other ways diplomatic talks could be productive in limiting or stabilizing the U.S.-North Korea standoff, as Mark Bell explained in the Monkey Cage last year.

But if the reality show continues, that kind of progress will be elusive, and there are at least four ways it could lead to a situation worse than what Trump inherited:

1. There is no process and no progress.

Trump and Kim might repeat the performance from the June summit and agree to unvetted, uncoordinated political rhetoric that stalls later during technical negotiations. Without an underlying process to justify leader meetings, summit diplomacy ultimately fails — but in a way that lets both Trump and Kim blame others.

Such a failure would leave the United States to deal with a nuclear North Korea every bit as capable of holding U.S. territory at risk of a nuclear strike as when it demonstrated the ability to do so with the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov. 28, 2017.

North Korea won’t give up its nuclear weapons. The U.S. has three good reasons to talk anyway.

2. Kim uses tactical delays for strategic advantage.

If Kim plays the same waiting game he has played thus far, future U.S. negotiators will wind up with a weaker hand because international sanctions on North Korea become more porous as time passes. And the North Korean missile program can quietly advance even without test launches.

3. Trump loses face.

Here’s a scarier possibility: Trump’s boasts about resolving the North Korea problem are proven so incontrovertibly false that he gets embarrassed into resuming the “fire and fury” talk. Some analysts said this scenario had already started to unfold — news reports confirmed Pyongyang had not restrained its nuclear capabilities in any meaningful way. What’s more, Kim’s New Year’s Day speech implied that if the United States didn’t quickly concede something meaningful, it may return to missile testing.

There comes a point at which Trump may be boxed into acknowledging that North Korean actions utterly defy U.S. concerns, his own assertions notwithstanding. As noted by Trump’s “Art of the Deal” co-author, Tony Schwartz, Trump does not handle embarrassment well.

There are signs North Korea is still working on its nuclear program. Here’s why ‘denuclearization’ is so problematic.

4. Trump becomes Kim’s puppet.

Trump may also become an unwitting mouthpiece for Kim’s preferences, in contravention of U.S. interests. At his news conference immediately after the June 2018 summit, for instance, Trump referred to U.S. bomber deployments as “provocative” — precisely the characterization North Korea has used for years.

Kim could demand the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea or an end to military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, while still keeping all of his nuclear weapons by default. Trump may decide he, too, wants to remove U.S. troops and curb exercises while allowing North Korea to retain all of its nuclear capacity, even though this would tie the hands of future U.S. presidents. The United States could end up with a brittle position in Asia — and remain vulnerable to North Korean nuclear weapons. The surest path for Kim to get all he wants is if Trump adopts Kim’s preferences as his own.

None of this argues against nuclear diplomacy, and few analysts are likely to advocate for a return to fire-and-fury posturing. But there are unacknowledged and avoidable risks in the reality-show variant of diplomacy taking place between Trump and Kim. Diplomacy done wrong can narrow the choices of future decision-makers in ways that weaken U.S. leverage, permit North Korea to expand its arsenal or even return us to a crisis.

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Van Jackson is a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, and the Defense & Strategy Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies in New Zealand. He is the author of “On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War” (Cambridge University Press, 2018). While serving in the Obama administration (2009-2014), he took part in U.S. negotiations with North Korea.