from Pressure Points

On North Korea, Iran, and Trump

May 24, 2018

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The cancellation of the US/North Korea meeting begins, in my view, with the JCPOA.

Logic suggests that what Kim really wanted from the new administration was a JCPOA of his own. That is, he wanted a nuclear deal that was time-limited by sunset provisions, that permitted him to keep on developing better and better missiles, and that required only that he suspend his nuclear work for a short period of years. Such a deal would legitimize the North Korean nuclear program and Kim would see sanctions lifted and his economy greatly benefitted. 

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No wonder he wanted such a deal. And from the regime stability angle, he might well have been persuaded that the Chinese and Vietnamese models are better long-run bets than his own. Those models allow for great economic growth and growing prosperity while maintaining single-party despotic rule. 

President Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA was a critical prelude to the summit from the American point of view. Kim had to be fully disabused of the notion that such a deal was even remotely available. The best he could hope for was a step-by-step agreement, in which he was not required to end his nuclear program entirely on Day One, and instead was rewarded for each serious step he took. When the Libya example was mentioned, I do not think Kim really believed that was because American officials hoped to see him dragged through the streets and killed while his country underwent terrible violence and divisions. Rather, the Libya model calls for complete denuclearization at the inception; it was not a long, step by step process. For Kim, that was bad enough.

The tone of North Korean insults in the last few days made it clear that opinion in Pyongyang was changing. It has been suggested that the tone changed after Kim met Xi Jinping. That makes sense: Xi might want to be the middleman between the US and North Korea, and might want to use that position as leverage in ongoing US/PRS trade talks. So he might well have told Kim things were going too fast. 

But the basic ideas behind a US/North Korea agreement remain reasonable. For China, a North Korea that is not starving, that does not need aid, that does not have nuclear weapons, and that is run on the Vietnamese or Chinese model politically and economically makes sense. For the United States, denuclearization of North Korea is a valuable goal and as with Libya worth opening diplomatic relations and ending sanctions. The question is whether Kim wants to slow this all down or kill it. It’s easy for me to say the Vietnamese model is better for the long-term stability of his regime than starvation, but he has to believe that. He has to believe that prosperity and openness will not lead North Koreans to demand more and more, or at least that he will be able to resist those demands through a combination of prosperity and repression. 

Kim also faces a difficult ideological shift if he ever makes a deal, because even by Asian communist standards the Kim family regime is uniquely repressive and bizarre. He will need to rewrite every textbook and make ten thousand speeches that his grandfather, his father, and he himself have given disappear down the memory hole. 

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Kim may have simply gotten cold feet and decided that in the end, what we call progress and prosperity would lead to uncontrollable instability. I’m think there is still a chance that the insults were a form of bargaining, and that the on/off summit might some day be on again. Perhaps Secretary Pompeo needs to meet with Kim again at some point down the road, or new talks might take place secretly at a lower level. 

The dream of a quick resolution to this terrible problem is over. But the American position is clear and is far more sensible than it has been for decades: there will be no freebies for Kim, no deals that do not require serious steps on his part to denuclearize. The American willingness to engage with him at the highest levels to achieve these goals is clear; that door is open. There will probably be efforts to cast blame around Washington now, but it’s entirely uncalled for. A serious effort was made, and was well-handled by serious officials. The President’s letter was well done, making it clear that North Korea had made the next step impossible for now—and regretting that fact. 

No one who has ever worked on North Korea negotiations could be surprised by what North Korea did in the last few days. The surprise might be that U.S. policy is tougher and more realistic than it has been under the last several administrations. 

 

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