Methods of walking out the second Trump-Kim Summit

Global Center Stage By Dr. Binoy Kampmark*

Methods of walking out the second Trump-Kim Summit

Prior to the summit, there was a transfixed terror that Trump was going to make all manner of earthly concessions for crumbs, and offer a good number of goods on a gold platter, to the North Korean leader.

US President Donald Trump, in a seemingly abrupt conclusion to talks in Hanoi with North Korea at the end of February, formulated this reasoning: “Sometimes you have to walk and this was one of those times.” North Korea’s Kim Jong-un had been pressing his advantage in Hanoi with an attempt to convince Trump that sanctions needed to be eased. He ended up seeing the back of Trump after the appropriate handshakes, a few nods, and a general acceptance that there will be more in the way of conversation in future months.

The loose drama at such events is often hard to detach from the fi rmly rooted substance. The appearance tends to precede the substantive value of what transpired. Ahead of the meeting, the White House was busy sending various signals designed to baffl e and confuse friend and foe alike. The president was keen to praise the “special relationship” with Kim, the sort of term reserved for gatherings such as those between the UK and US.

At the end of January, Stephen Biegun, designated special representative for North Korea in the US State Department, suggested that Pyongyang had made a commitment in presummit talks to eliminate uranium and plutonium enrichment facilities for a price. He seemed confi dent that matters were moving on in Pyongyang. His mood seemed to jar with the more bellicose stance taken by national security adviser and pro-bombing enthusiast John R. Bolton and fellow belligerent companion and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In this, the Trump administration was being orthodox in unorthodoxy: playing its dysfunction and diff erences in full view.

In carefully chosen words, Beigun noted how “Chairman Kim qualified next steps on North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities upon the United States taking corresponding measures.” He was optimistic at the time, drawing upon themes of fl exibility and novelty in the approach to diplomacy being taken by both parties. “Neither leader is constrained by traditional expectations that might doom their teams to try the exact same approach as in the past, with no expectation of anything but the same failed outcome.”

The president’s preliminary chats over dinner with Kim prior to the formal summit did not give much away. He proved enthusiastic and characteristically optimistic. “Great meetings and dinner tonight in Vietnam with Kim Jong Un of North Korea,” he tweeted. “Very good dialogue. Resuming tomorrow!” Those aching for detail and fi lling were left disappointed. By breakfast the next day, things had cooled. Cancellations of a working lunch followed, and the scene was being set for a premature departure.

The smoke has yet to clear and maybe hovering for some time yet. The language of summitry is often best left to time to harden and clarify; in the immediate aftermath, little value can be gauged from bits of anger and spaces of irritation. But the US president was impressed by Kim’s off er to dismantle the enrichment facility at Yongbyon in its entirety (though it is clear that the totality of the DPRK’s capacity goes beyond it). The discussion and proposed transaction list at Hanoi seemed somewhat threadbare; a total lift of sanctions for Yongbyon’s dismantling was hardly a complete picture.

According to Trump, giving very little by way of detail, “Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that.”

The response was not long in coming. Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s foreign minister, suggested another version, somewhat more nuanced and certainly less absolute: that only some sanctions be lifted in exchange for the permanent and complete dismantling of the main facility, verifi ed by US experts. “Given the current level of trust between North Korea and the United States, this was the maximum step for denuclearization we could off er.”

Prior to the summit, there was a transfi xed terror that Trump was going to make all manner of earthly concessions for crumbs, and off er a good number of goods on a gold platter, to the North Korean leader. A bemused Trump simply deemed it “false reporting” on his “intentions with respect to North Korea.” Both parties would “try very hard to work something out on Denuclearization & then making North Korea an Economic Powerhouse.”

This was far from the case. As Joel S. Wit and Jenny Town noted with some accuracy in 38 North (Feb 28, 2019), “It’s ironic that while most pundits and the media kept up a steady drumbeat that he was going to give away the store, he did just the opposite, holding out for a better deal.”

The issues at stake on the Korean Peninsula seem monumental, but taken together, constitute the pieces of an immaculate, expansive jigsaw. There are multiple parties and considerations, spanning a set of interests. For that reason, scholars and former practitioners of diplomacy have come to the conclusion that any resolution to the situation must involve several discrete steps taken over time and crowned by some grand security guarantee. A key proponent of this view is former National Security Council member Morton Halperin, who has been nursing notions of an interlocking series of arrangements and assurances that will neutralise hostility and create an enduring peace.

Any comprehensive talks will have to address these, and this summit was evidently not going to do that. The tendency of much commentary on the subject has been to leap on one issue, ignoring the others. But to only see one or two pieces in isolation (abductees, for instance, or the issue of exclusive, verifi able and irreversible denuclearisation) is to ignore the numbers of steps in the entire aff air.

Trust needs to be restored, a peace treaty neutering the war status of the Peninsula signed, undertakings against the use of force and hostile intent made with heft, and ultimately, an understanding that the parties at the negotiating table aren’t going to bump you off . Pyongyang is being asked to relinquish its highest grade insurance in the face of a superpower which has shown more than an unhealthy tendency to infl ict regime changes with catastrophic consequences. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by US-led forces, and the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, are seen as seminal lessons in history for those who do not have some form of lethal deterrence. Brinkmanship and theories of managed lunacy in the diplomatic realm will only get you to a point.

Despite the public breakdown of talks, respective sides are still mindful of not being too provocative. (Or, if so, just a little less than usual.) The annual and customarily huge military drills between the ROK and the US known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle have been cancelled, as per the announcement of March 3. Instead, they have been replaced by unit level training, a concession that still irked the Korean Central News Agency (KNCA, March 7), which considered the move “a wanton violation of the DPRK-US joint statement and the north-south declarations in which the removal of hostility and tensions were committed to.”

Not to be outdone, Pyongyang may also be supplying its own teasing moves, dismantling and restoring simultaneously. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency and South Korean intelligence sources have claimed that the DPRK’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station at the Tongchang-RI site has been partly restored. “I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim,” responded Trump to the revelations, “and don’t think I will be.”

With Trump being advised by the likes of the gun-slinging Bolton (known in North Korean circles as the paternal inspiration for Pyongyang’s nuclear program) and Kim ever mindful about the vulnerabilities of his regime, more walkouts are bound to happen before anything concrete is decided upon. As nuclear non-proliferation pundit Jeff rey Lewis rightly noted in Foreign Policy (Feb 26), the old guard (Bolton and company) represent “the cold wind” of the old guard and “pretty much the rest of the government bureaucracy”, sceptical of supplying any concessions to Pyongyang. The warmth of reform in securing peace on the Korean Peninsula spurred on by the fanning of South Korea’s reformist leader Moon Jae-in and the groundwork from the likes of Biegun, act as moderating counters.

The logistics of negotiations on the second day in Hanoi became evident when Biegun was banished to the back seat – quite literally – of the diplomatic table. Both Bolton and Pompeo took precedence, sparking suspicion from Korea watchers such as Christine Ahn of the Women Cross DMZ activist group (Newsweek, Feb 28), that “something fishy” was afoot. The fi shiness had the final say.

As matters stand, there will be no resumption of North Korean ballistic and nuclear testing, and a promise for more negotiations, amidst the usual round of theatrical recriminations for domestic audiences. The chatter will continue, and channels will remain open. As for Trump himself, “This wasn’t a walkaway like you get up and walk out. No, this was very friendly. We shook hands.”

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