Assessing the Summit

Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Don Pollard
Patricia M. Kim

Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Gary Samore

Executive Director for Research, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Former Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, The White House

Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

J. Stapleton Roy

Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Panelists discuss the threats posed by a nuclear North Korea and the Trump-Kim summit meeting.

ROY: Ready to go? Good afternoon. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Stape Roy. I’m a so-called distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the director emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. I’ll be presiding over today’s session. We have a star-studded panel. All of them true distinguished scholars, as opposed to false distinguished scholars. Ph.Ds. in their field, extensive experience. Sheila Smith, of course, with the Council on Foreign Relations, a Japan expert. Gary Samore, real expert inside the government and at the Harvard Belfer Center on science and foreign affairs, on arms control, weapons of mass destruction, anything that goes boom in the night. (Laughter.) And Patricia Kim, Princeton University, expert on Chinese foreign affairs, U.S.-China relations, and East Asia security issues.

I’ve been looking at the commentary on the president’s summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. And it’s all over the map. Some people commenting favorably on it, quite a few commenting very negatively. I thought we might kick off by asking our panel to take about two minutes to give their capsule assessment of the success or failure of the summit, quickly if there are any particular reasons why you assess it that way, and we’ll use that as a backdrop for our ongoing discussion. Sheila, why don’t you kick things off?

SMITH: Sure. Happy to. Thank you. And thank you all for coming. There’s so much we could say about this summit but let me just focus on two points. We are in a better place today than we were four to six months ago. So I think you have to start out with that. I spent a lot of time last year in the region, both in South Korea and Japan. And there was deep anxiety and fear that we may actually have the use of force in the region. And so yesterday’s summit, for all its questions and idiosyncrasies, we are in a better place because of it.

Where I was a little bit disappointed is where everybody else, I suspect, was a little disappointed, that was we didn’t get much detail about the plan and whether it was a timeline, or sequencing, or even just a simple question of do we share a same definition of denuclearization, right? I mean, that’s the starting point to whatever comes next. I was more dismayed this morning, if I might say that, when I saw the film. (Laughs.) To be honest with you, I was a little taken aback. I’m not sure it was effective or how Kim Jong-un understood the film, but I felt a little bit that the film may have been an interesting setup, but it certainly didn’t get us to where I think we needed to be, which is a much more serious conversation about what steps are ahead and what prospects there really are or transformation in Northeast Asia.

SAMORE: So I’m basically in the same place. On the positive side, the summit established a personal relationship between President Trump and Chairman Kim. And that may come in handy as we move forward. And the summit established a starting point for a negotiation on the critical issues of denuclearization, establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and normalizing U.S.-North Korean relations. On the negative side I would go even a little further than Sheila. There’s absolutely no resolution of any of the fundamental issues on any of those issues, at least not in the summit communique. Now, of course, it’s possible that there were private understandings that took place during the meeting.

But on the surface, there doesn’t appear to be any progress on the critical issues. And I suspect that we will very quickly find out that an effort to translate the Singapore summit into practical steps to move toward peace, denuclearization, normalization is going to very quickly run into those fundamental differences between the U.S. and North Korea. And if President Trump wants to salvage the Singapore summit, I think he’s going to have to be personally engaged in talking directly to Kim Jong-un as the negotiators inevitably hit some pretty steep roadblocks.

KIM: First of all, I want to thank Ambassador Roy for hosting us and for CFR for putting this panel together, and for everyone making time to be here. I think I would just echo what Sheila and Gary said. Frankly, I found the results of the summit very disappointing. I think the United States’ biggest task for this summit was to secure a clear commitment by North Korea to give up and dismantle its own nuclear weapons program, and we didn’t get this. So I think the hope of this unconventional approach of the summit, by starting at the very front, was that it would pay off because this was such a big ask, and it could only come from one head of state to the other. And what we got instead was a vague commitment by North Korea to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. And as you know, that’s a very loaded term, and it has very different interpretations on both sides, and it’s bound to raise problems going forward.

I think President Trump believes that he established this great personal relationship with Kim Jong-un, and he’s hoping that that will pay off in sort of further negotiations. But, you know—and I certainly hope this is true and it works out this way—but I wonder if Kim wasn’t willing to commit to clear denuclearization at this summit that he wanted so much, you know, how much—how much will he be willing to do that in subsequent negotiations at lower levels? I’m not sure.

ROY: This was a bilateral summit. Previously, our efforts have been through the six-party talks, involving all of the other most directly interested countries. But the bilateral summit involves vital interests of important players in East Asia, including two U.S. allies, our relationship with China. And to understand the summit, we have to also understand how these countries are assessing what took place in Singapore.

Patricia, why don’t you start off with China and South Korea.

KIM: Sure. So I think the Chinese and the South Koreans were generally happy that this summit didn’t blow up, because President Trump did say that, you know, he would walk in and the first minute he was going to size up Kim Jong-un, and he could walk out the door. And obviously, that didn’t happen. And I think they were generally happy that the two sides signed off on an agreement to pursue, you know, a new era of peaceful relations. I think the Chinese—so the Chinese have praised the outcome of the summit and the joint statement. And I think they were most relieved that nothing came out of this summit to indicate that North Korea would align itself with the United States. You know, before the summit had happened there had been discussion, oh, is this North Korea’s China—you know, Nixon and Mao—moment, where they would shift to the U.S.? But clearly, you know, that wasn’t an outcome.

Kim Jong-un, as you—as you might have noticed, flew to Singapore in a Chinese plane. And that was a very tangible symbol of the fact that North Korea does depend upon China for many things. And I think the Chinese were also very pleased when President Trump said at the press conference that any talks about a peace treaty would include China in the future. So, if you read the Panmunjom statement that came out of the North-South summit on April 27, there the two sides, North Korea and South Korea, had said we will discuss an end to the Korean War either trilaterally, with the United States, or quadrilaterally with China and the United States. And so I think the Chinese were very concerned, you know, which one is it? Is it going to be trilateral or quadrilateral? Will we be included? And, you know, it was clear during the summit that the Chinese would be included, and I think they were very happy about that.

I think another reason why Beijing was happy with the results is because essentially the two sides agreed to what they have been promoting all along, which is this idea of a dual suspension where North Korea suspends its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the United States suspending its military exercises. And this is pretty much what was promised.

And I think just looking forward what’s going to happen with Beijing, I think China has already begun to push for relaxing sanctions. They will be doing this with the logic that hey, you know, you need to build trust with North Korea, you need to draw them out, you need to engage them economically, and maybe one day they’ll be comfortable enough to let go of their weapons. I mean, I can certainly see that argument, but I mean, I think it’s very dangerous because we lose all of our levers with Pyongyang once we start to loosen those sanctions. So even though Trump has said, you know, we’re not going to loosen sanctions until we see concrete steps towards denuclearization, it’s going to be practically very hard to enforce this.

With South Korea, briefly, I think President Moon was very happy with the summit outcome. He was probably more—he was probably more comfortable with the vague language about peacebuilding and a new relationship than some of the people in the U.S. were, and I think it’s—this is because he’s of the philosophy as well that you need to slowly build trust with North Korea in order to encourage it to let go of its weapons. Having said that, I think there is confusion in South Korea, as well, as what President Trump meant by suspending military exercises. And so the South Korean Ministry of Defense, you know, when they were asked, they said we don’t know and we’ll get back to you, and we haven’t heard any clarification. So there’s a lot of anxiety about what does this mean for the alliance going forward.

At the same time, there’s obviously optimism that we’re not going back to “fire and fury.” And I think—I was watching both the South Korean news coverage and the American news coverage of the summit, and you could really feel the excitement in the South Korean news coverage. I mean, people—I think emotionally this hit the South Koreans because this conflict between North Korea and the United States has been going on for so long, you know, 70 years. And has—it has really just colored everything about the way South Korea approaches the world, how it deals with its brother in the North. And so I think there was this sort of emotional reaction when they saw the American flag and the North Korean flag side by side and when they saw the two leaders shake hands.

And there’s a lot of enthusiasm already about economic cooperation with North Korea. Apparently, the stocks of certain companies that do business in North Korea are going up rapidly. You know, I think they want to jumpstart the Kaesong industrial area that was shut down in 2016. So there’s a lot of eagerness there. Politicians and regional governors are already promising to do all kinds of projects with North Korea, and there are plans to connect the western and eastern parts of the Korean Peninsula to China and Russia. So there’s a lot of eagerness there, and I think it’ll be very hard to go back to any sort of, you know, maximum pressure if we—if things were to break down.

ROY: Let’s jump to Sheila. What about Japan?

SMITH: So Japan’s on the other side. Japan opposed the freeze for freeze. Prime Minister Abe and his Cabinet very strongly advocated for and supported the maximum pressure strategy. And so, as you know, last month Prime Minister Abe was in Washington twice. (Laughs.) He came to town—well, he was in Florida and then Washington—and really trying to rebound and catch up when President Trump was on again, off again about the summit.

I think there’s a narrative out there in the media that Japan’s been sidelined, and I kind of take a little bit of issue with that because I don’t think that’s true. Japan is one step removed from the Korean Peninsula and always has been, right, in this mix: a close U.S. ally, a strong partner in the trilateral management of the problem. But Japan’s not on the front line, and so it has to work harder. (Laughs.) And that’s the traditional position on these North Korea issues.

I will say that what’s been interesting to watch is Prime Minister Abe has been very cautious in his commentary about the summit. He said it is a first step in a comprehensive resolution. But, of course, the Japanese position coming into this was that they wanted a clear articulation of complete, verifiable, irreversible—right—denuclearization. They embraced the CVID and they were looking for it in the joint statement, which as Gary said it wasn’t there. And so I think there’s disappointment on that.

They were also—and they got President Trump several times to go on the record by saying that he would advocate for ballistic missile disarmament. That wasn’t also to be seen yesterday in the readout. Now, again, as Gary said, there may be more detail when Secretary of State Pompeo talks to the foreign ministers today of South Korea and Japan. But that was a very obvious and conspicuous missing part, I think, for the Japanese. Prime Minister Abe did go on the record, though, and thank President Trump for raising the abductee issue with the North in the—in the talks that were not so publicized, and the president noted this in the press conference.

I think what’s interesting is to watch just in the few hours since the Singapore summit, after the prime minister spoke, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga had his regular press conference and was asked about this. And Suga kind of took his cue from President Trump’s tweet, I think. He said we can be assured that the risk of missiles coming in the direction of Japan has been reduced by the summit. So the unpredictability of North Korea’s launches—I think they’re obviously scrambling for something positive to say. So he, too, bought into the threat has been reduced compared to last year.

But if you look at all the editorials from the more liberal Asahi to the conservative Yomiuri to the Nikkei, which is The Wall Street Journal of Japan, very strong condemnation of the joint statement no matter what side of the political spectrum you are on. And the prescription for Japan of all of these was also very interesting. The liberal Asahi basically said Mr. Abe needs to move out quickly to improve his position in negotiations with Russia, with China, and with South Korea. And the Yomiuri, which is a more establishment sort of centrist-right paper, said it is time for a Kim Jong-un-Abe Shinzo summit, that we cannot rely on others to articulate our national interest. So what you’re seeing in the public editorial page, separate from the government, is there’s a sense of inadequacy that Japan can actually rely on this process at the moment to fully represent its interests. And that’s important, I think, for us to understand.

ROY: Gary, over the last twenty-five years we’ve been down the negotiating route with North Korea many times, and in every case it ended up in failure. And we now have a nuclear-weapon-possessing North Korea. Could you address some of the issues that would help us think about the question: Is this going to be a sustainable process? What are some of the big problems that we may encounter in going down this track?

SAMORE: So you’re right, Stape; we’ve had a very long and sad history of trying to negotiate first efforts to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, and then once they acquired nuclear weapons more than ten years ago efforts to convince them to roll back their nuclear-weapons capability. I’d make four quick observations about that history because I think all of that is going to still be relevant for the negotiations going forward under Secretary Pompeo.

The first point I would make is that, in my experiencing going back to the ’93-’94 negotiations, the North Koreans have a very deep commitment to having nuclear weapons as a(n) existential requirement for their survival. I can’t emphasize more importantly it is to them to have nuclear weapons. And I think that’s become even more important as their economy and their conventional forces have declined. So the idea, in my view, that North Korea will give up their nuclear weapons quickly and easily is a fantasy.

The second thing I would say is that the North Koreans, even though they believe they need to have nuclear weapons, they are prepared to accept restraints. They may be tactical or temporary, but we have a history of having been able to get the North Koreans to limit their program. In the case of the 1994 agreement, for example, they halted further production of plutonium while the agreement was in place. At different times there has been a freeze on testing. And, of course, we currently have a freeze on nuclear and long-range missile testing, which I think is technically significant. If that freeze continues, it limits to some extent North Korea’s ability to perfect long-range missiles that could attack the United States.

The third point I would make is that the diplomat—the North Korean diplomats have a certain plan that they play over and over again and which, for them, has all worked very well. The North Koreans are happy to agree to the ultimately objective of denuclearization. They have no problem saying that they’re committed to denuclearization, as the Singapore summit does, and as many joint communiques between the U.S. and North Korea have done. But when it comes to actually implementing a plan to carry out denuclearization, the North Koreans know how to structure a step-by-step process of reciprocity so that they get rewards up front, economic and security benefits, and they control the process so that they never actually have to give up nuclear weapons. So it’s a long, drawn-out, step-by-step process. They control the pace and scope. And therefore, they’re able to, on one hand, commit to the long-term objective of denuclearization, but on the other hand never have to do it.

And the fourth point I would make is the North Koreans have been extremely resistant to any kind of strong verification measures. The North Koreans have never acknowledged having any nuclear facilities outside the Yongbyon Nuclear Center, which is where IAEA inspectors have gone off and on over many years. They’ve never been willing to admit that they have any additional nuclear facilities, which we know is not true. There’s never been any international access to their missile productions facilities, much less deployed missiles or nuclear weapons. So I think when Secretary Pompeo sits down with this North Korean counterpart to be named—I thought it was a big curious that the summit communique didn’t mention who his counterpart would be. Maybe there’s some jockeying inside North Korea for who gets the pleasure of negotiating with Secretary Pompeo.

But when the secretary sits down, I think all of these issues are going to very quickly become apparent. And the U.S. idea that we can get North Korea to disarm in a short period of time, to first declare, then freeze, then reduce, then eliminate to our satisfaction before we give them economic and political benefits, this is just not going to work. And the Trump administration at some point will have to decide whether they compromise to keep the process alive, or whether they try to back out of the diplomacy and go back to maximum pressure and bloody nose.

ROY: Let me pick up on that final point. We have about eight minutes before we go to member questions. The president made a very unusual statement, saying—and I’m paraphrasing—maybe in a week I’ll be up here admitting that the summit was a mistake and that I’ll have to find somebody to blame. (Laughter.) I’m not interested in whom to blame, but I am interested in the question: Sustaining a difficult negotiation is partly a function of what the alternatives are. And we haven’t really looked at the question of failure. What if the engagement strategy proves unproductive? Where do we go from there? Could we, from each of your perspectives—maybe try to keep it to two minutes or so?

SMITH: I’ll try and be succinct. So we have the back the fire and fury, which is war on the Korean Peninsula, that Gary pointed out, hundreds of thousands of South Korean and Japanese lives are lost, quite frankly. The other is that the NPT, the multilateral regime that governs nonproliferation, is basically at an end, it’s done. If we have nuclear breakout and it becomes acceptable over the objections of the largest power in the world and their allies, then we have a problem, right?

And then the last is something that I think we don’t think about very often and it’s hard to describe. In my mind it just the slow dissipation of American influence. And that’s a slow dissipation of influence with our allies, who we are no longer able to protect adequately. And that’s the alarm bell that went off when I heard President Trump talk about war games as provocations, right? But be sure that in Seoul and in Tokyo that was a huge alarm bell. And so I’m worried about that. But it’s a larger dissipation of influence that would also be relevant to our relationship with the PRC, with Russia, and with the Asia-Pacific writ large. So very succinctly, that’s my concern.

ROY: Patricia, why don’t I go to you and give the last word to the expert on nuclear Armageddon. (Laughter.)

KIM: Sure. So I would say, you know, it’s very hard to tell what would happen if the talks broke down. I think it would depend on how and when it breaks down. And it’s very hard to predict how President Trump might react, you know, if there’s some sort of personal insult. Then, you know, he may choose to walk away in a violent way. I’m not sure. But I do know that if we do go back to this maximum pressure campaign, we’ve already lost all of the economic portion of this campaign. And so that means the only thing left really that the United States has is the military power and threatening that way.

And I don’t think we’re going to have any support for that, not only because it’s such a dangerous and horrifying option, but also we’ve already committed. We’ve signed a paper that says we’re going to work towards a new era with North Korea. You’re going to bet that China’s going to keep us to our words, South Koreans as well. And, you know, they’re going to point out inconsistencies in what we do. So for instance, if military exercises continue, you can bet that they will keep us to our word and ask why we’re doing it. So there isn’t really much left. And it’s hard to predict. And hopefully, we don’t have to go there.

SAMORE: So, I mean, obviously President Trump is very difficult to predict, but I think it’s going to be hard for him to pull the plug on this diplomatic process, even if it runs into a roadblock, which I think it will. I think he seems to be very personally invested in this diplomatic achievement, and it will be hard to admit failure. I think much more likely is he’ll give Secretary Pompeo more flexible instructions to compromise and accept a North Korean approach, step-by-step reciprocity, which may not achieve denuclearization right away. But as long as the test moratorium is in place, and North Korea is not demonstrating the ability to hit the United States directly, President Trump can claim that he’s protecting the United States—America first. He’s done something that other presidents haven’t done.

And then finally, the alternatives to keeping the diplomatic process alive are very unappetizing, war, or very impractical, going back to maximum pressure. I think we’ve really lost a very good option to go back to sanctions pressure, for all the reasons that Patty and Sheila have said. So my guess is that we’re likely, even if the process slows down and doesn’t make a lot of rapid progress, it’s likely to continue.

ROY: If the moratorium breaks down, do we jump immediately to a type of crisis that we were facing four months ago?

SAMORE: Well, I think—I think if the moratorium breaks down we may have better options to resurrect the sanctions regime, because it was the testing campaign that really flipped the Chinese in the first place, starting under Obama and then continuing under Trump, to support extraordinary U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea. I think Kim Jong-un is too smart for that. I think he’s had two years of very intensive nuclear and missile testing. He’s achieved a certain technological plateau—thermonuclear weapons, long-range missiles, both demonstrated—where he can afford to pause in the testing campaign now and receive the benefits of de facto sanctions relief. The U.N. sanctions may still be in effect on paper, but the truth is the Chinese have stopped enforcing much of the sanctions. And I have a feeling the South Koreans will figure out a way to get around them through, quote, humanitarian assistance. So I think from Kim Jong-un’s standpoint, it would be not very wise for him to break the moratorium at this point. And so far, he’s played his cards extraordinarily well.

ROY: Two minutes. Could each of you comment: If the negotiations break down, who is going to be blamed for the failure? (Laughter.) Will it be the United States or the North Koreans? Because this is very relevant to the question of whether you can get the support of, say, China, for a tighter sanctions arrangement.


SMITH: Do you want me to jump first? I suspect it depends on who’s doing the blaming, right? I think—

ROY: Well, this can include media and anything. In other words, where will public opinion place the fault?

SMITH: So I think, you know, it was interesting. I was on NPR yesterday doing an hour-long talk show, I mean, conversation on this with another guest. And a lot of call-in voices. And I can tell you, it wasn’t split. I couldn’t do a 50/50. I couldn’t gauge how much. But there was an awful lot of call-ins that said: You people are biased towards the president. He’s done something great. He’s done something nobody else could do. And you ought to give him some credit and give him some time. So I think inside the United States, we will hear that argument, quite frankly. So the president may blame, you know, inadequacies of all kinds of policymakers in our system, or it may blame the other side. But I think the American people could be split on this. And I think we just need to be aware of the way this is being perceived domestically.

In the region, I doubt that the Japanese prime minister is going to openly criticize President Trump. They will be very fast to say, aha, it’s Kim Jong-un’s fault. I mean, I think that’s just a default position, to be quite honest with you. I don’t see that, whatever they think privately. But I don’t know. I mean, in Seoul and Beijing, I think there will be a different—there will be a different calculus. And I think the United States is more likely to be blamed. But I’ll leave that to Gary and Pat.

ROY: Gary, what do you think?

SAMORE: So I think, you know, in terms of in the region, I think that both the Chinese and the South Koreans know that the U.S. opening position is not realistic. And they would be very comfortable with a more North Korean step-by-step approach with reciprocal actions. So as the talks break down, I think both Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in will be coaching and trying to convince Trump to take a more flexible position. I agree with Sheila. The Japanese probably wouldn’t be that disappointed if the process breaks down.

I think one potential danger for Trump, the administration has said that they want the agreement, if it eventually is reached, to take the form of a treaty. And I shudder to think, in today’s politics in this town, what would happen if the Senate has to get two-thirds vote in favor of an imperfect nuclear agreement with North Korea. And it will be imperfect. It may not even meet the standards of the Iran agreement. So I worry that we may have a very difficult, very tough, you know, year and a half negotiation that produces a treaty that then goes before the Senate and takes another six months or more to be ratified, or even worse fails. All this time North Korea can sit back, they don’t have to do anything until the treaty is in force.

So I can imagine this whole process of negotiation, ratification, bumping up the—bumping up against the end of Trump’s first term. And the North Koreans, sensibly enough, will want to wait and see who the next president’s going to be.

ROY: Quickly on China, South Korea.

KIM: I would just say—I would echo what was already said. I mean, basically if North Korea broke the moratorium, then I think it would get some of the blame. But if we—if the talks break down in simply the negotiation phase, where we’re talking details, then I think the blame would come to the United States, because we’ve already committed to a peace process.

ROY: Thank you.

We’ll go to member questions. I have to make some required announcements. One is, this is on the record. Wait for the microphone, speak directly into it. Please stand and state your name and affiliation. And please limit yourself to one question, and keep it concise, to allow as many members as possible.

We’ll start here.

Q: Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council.

I guess this is for you primarily, Gary, but others can join in. With the Iran agreement, we know Iran has 17 declared nuclear facilities, the IAEA has been permitted to go to all of them. What is our best guestimate of how many nuclear facilities North Korea actually has? I know that there’s a lot of imprecision over how many nuclear weapons they have. Do we have any clue where these are being kept? And why have we only had inspectors at Yongbyon historically? And were there efforts made to go to other places? Thanks.

SAMORE: So the North Koreans have always rejected allowing inspectors to any other facilities. There was one exception in the Clinton administration, when we could—I remember this well—the Kumchang-ni site. It was a site we believed the North Koreans were building an underground reactor. And we demanded access to that site because we thought they were violating the 1994 Agreed Framework. And they allowed access to the site. I think it cost a million tons of rice, as I recall. And it turned out that there was actually nothing there, we were wrong, at least at that particular site. Later on, as we know, the North Koreans were in fact cheating on the agreed framework, but not at that particular location.

You know, I don’t know what the magnitude of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure and nuclear weapon are, but I think verification is less a technical issue than a political issue. If the North Korean leader, I mean it is possible that Kim Jong-un was sold on the Trump video and the idea of, you know, beach resorts in North Korea, and he really is serious about giving up his nuclear weapons. In that case, the North Koreans can cooperate with international inspectors in a way that would produce a reasonably satisfying verification and accounting of their stockpile and facilities. I mean, South Africa is a good case, where a government genuinely decided to give up its nuclear weapons, cooperated, and it was done in a relatively short period of time—a year or so. The problem I think really rests with political will. Unless the North Koreans have political will, I just don’t see how you can have a very satisfactory verification.

ROY: In the back.

Q: Thanks for a great discussion. Rob Litwak from the Wilson Center.

The summit has changed the psychology of the nuclear crisis and altered the optic through which we’re looking at North Korea, at least President Trump. And we’ve had the options of bomb, negotiate, or deter. Last year, the Trump administration referred to North Korea as a rogue state, essentially a crazy state. Kim Jong-un was a madman. Number of officials said: We will not deter North Korea. What’s happened with the summit is the optic is they’ve essentially made is an ordinary country, a conventional adversary, such that if there were a breakdown in negotiations, and they tried to ramp up maximum pressure, I think it’s put the nuclear option—or, the military option, it’s pushed it off. And the option that they rejected last year that we might have to default to is deterrence. And in the time-honored tradition of conferences, my question is what do you think of that? (Laughter.)

SMITH: I’m happy to jump in on that one. So I think that’s an excellent point. And I suspect in Tokyo right now there’s a pretty full-throated conversation behind the scenes that this is really the way in which the alliance has to move. And for the Japanese at least, this question of deterrence against North Korea was rejected. And any visitor who came to Washington over the course of the last year who said: If you acknowledge North Korea—if the United States acknowledges North Korea as a nuclear power and argue for deterrence, along the same lines as deterring against any other nuclear state, the alliance—the extended deterrent will have crumbled, right? So it’s a psychology there as well, right? The Japanese psychology is such that we can’t acknowledge it.

And there’s a pretty strong conversation among security planners and some conservatives in Tokyo about deterring through developing a conventional strike capability on the part of the Japanese. So I think you’ll get some pretty serious conversations among—within our allies, if that’s the way we end up going.

SAMORE: So just very quickly, I think, you know, we’ve lived with a nuclear armed North Korea for 10 years. And we’ve deterred them. So nothing new there. But I do think there’s a long-term danger that when it becomes clear that we’re not going to be able to disarm North Korea, the natural tendency over time in Seoul and Tokyo is to consider their own nuclear deterrent—especially if there’s any question about the reliability of the U.S. guarantee. And I think President Trump’s behavior—I’m not saying he’s broken the alliance—but I do think his behavior on balance has shaken confidence in U.S. reliability in Tokyo and Seoul. Not in an irreparable way, but I do think the long-term danger we have to face—since I don’t think we’re going to disarm North Korea—is that Seoul and Tokyo will decide they have to have their own nuclear weapons.

ROY: Do you to comment?

KIM: And I would just add briefly to that, you know, in light of the fact that this could breakdown, you know, just talking about withdrawing troops from South Korea already, and talking about ending war games, or adopting that kind of language when we talk about alliance readiness, I think it’s a very dangerous place to be for the United States and sort of our alliance architecture out there. And so I would just stress that the White House—I think it needs to take two tracks. You know, it needs to make sure that deterrence doesn’t break down, because we could very well end up there if these talks don’t go well. But, yeah, that’s what I would add.

ROY: Yes. Yes.

Q: Kim Dozier with CNN.

What do you think will happen with the sanctions regime? Secretary of State Pompeo has just announced that talks are likely to resume next week. You predicted they could go as long as a year and a half. Also, president Trump continues to say no one could have done this except him and his administration. Was the North Korea regime ready for these kind of talks before this moment?

SAMORE: So I’ll just say very quickly, it’s a very common pattern for the North Koreans to increase tension, and then to release tension in exchange for economic and political benefit. So I have been predicting for a long time that Kim Jong-un would eventually switch to a peace offensive. And he picked a good time to do it because, as I said, they’ve demonstrated both thermonuclear weapons and long-range missiles in their testing campaign last year. Now, I think that the U.S. sanctions and President Trump’s military threats may have also been a part of Kim Jong-un’s calculation, but as far as I can tell Kim Jong-un is really the one who’s controlling the pace and scope of what’s happening diplomatically in terms of his meetings with Moon Jae-in, and Xi Jinping, and now Trump. I think we can expect a meeting with Vladimir Putin. He may even have pity on poor Prime Minister Abe and meet with him to talk about abductees. As I said, I think that, you know, Kim Jong-un has really just been masterful.

KIM: If I could add to that, you know, thinking about North Korea’s intentions, or Kim Jong-un’s intentions, I mean, I think this guy is very serious about wanting economic development and to change his country. So he’s promised since the beginning of his leadership that he was going to bring both nuclear—strong nuclear weapons, and prosperity to his country. And if you—if you see the way he’s been signaling—so, you know, before he met with President Moon, he made this big speech to the party saying: We are now switching tracks. We’re no longer pursuing nuclear development, but we’re going to focus solely on economic development. And no one should stand in the way of this or try to drag our feet.

He also said—you know, in Singapore he took that nighttime stroll around downtown Singapore, and he had his state media publish pictures of this nighttime stroll and, you know, report that he—you know, he wanted to learn from Singapore’s model and follow this—follow its technological and economic development. So I think there’s a will here. He’s setting the narrative to shift the way things are done in North Korea. And I think that’s where we really have leverage. He truly wants economic development.

And that’s the one place where the U.S. could have had leverage, I think, if we had sort of done this, you know, more slowly and worked towards a summit where we can get him to commit to clear—you know, like, a clear commitment to dismantle his weapons program in exchange for this help on economic development, and greenlighting South Korea and Chinese cooperation. That was our leverage. And I’m afraid that we’ve lost this.

ROY: Gary.

SAMORE: Could I just—I mean, I—you know, even though I don’t think, you know, complete elimination is possible, I do think it’s possible to at least get a limit on the program, like a cap on further production of nuclear weapons or a cap on long-range missile development. So I hope Patty isn’t right, that we’ve given away all our leverage. I hope we still have enough leverage to at least get some verified and concrete limits on the program, even if we can’t completely eliminate.

SMITH: Just a—just one more of the question marks about the conversation that happened in Singapore. I’m not sure if we’ve given away all our leverage, but the president is sort of spending other people’s leverage as well. (Laughter.) And that’s what worries me. I mean, he was spending South Korean and Japanese taxpayer dollars, not American taxpayer dollars, when he was starting to talk about we can invest in North Korea, we can help you. (Laughter.) You know, that’s a little bit of a limitation of the America first approach, quite frankly. And the Japanese are not likely to line up. The South Koreans may be a little bit more forward leaning on that because they have their own vision and own conversation with Kim Jong-un.

But President Trump can’t change the Security Council resolutions. What he can do is change our loosen up who implements them. And the implementation piece of that I think is probably the answer to your question. Already China—as Patty said—China and South Korea has loosened up just a little bit. The Japanese, I doubt are going to loosen up a lot, but they may feel that they need to participate in some form to support it or to get the summit meeting that they so badly would like to have a conversation on the abductees. So we’ve opened up now this Pandora’s box of the unilateral sanctions being slightly reduced, so to invite that bilateral summitry. I will be very interested, as Gary said, to see what happens in the Putin-Kim Jong-un meeting that I’m sure is coming very soon.

ROY: In the back. In the back. I’ll get back to you all.

Q: Thank you. Jim Keith. I’m a former subordinate of Stape’s in the diplomatic services and currently with the business consulting firm McLarty Associates.

Gary, I wonder if you would comment on an observation. One of the deficiencies of freeze for freeze is that the absence of military exercises puts some time limits on our side. Much depends on the details, of course. We don’t know precisely what that means—what is meant by the U.S. position on freezing military exercises. Presumably, a year and a half or so, is what you mentioned, is about the outer limits of what the U.S. could sustain in terms of suspended military exercises. I wonder if you see that as an obstacle to going back to what we’ve seen in the Agreed Framework and the six-party talks, the painstaking and painful, long process of negotiation.

SAMORE: So if the president really agreed to suspend all joint military exercises while the negotiations are proceeding, I think it was an unnecessary and stupid mistake. I thought we could modify the exercises in a way that removed the most aggressive and, from North Korea’s standpoint provocative, elements. You know, plans for a decapitation strike, or the, you know, involvement of strategic bombers. I mean, there are things we can do that I think would have been sufficient to satisfy Kim Jong-un without giving away everything.

Now, my guess is that Trump was probably pretty imprecise. And I imagine the Pentagon and their South Korean counterparts are now trying to walk back or come up with a way of saying that, yes, war games have been suspended, but we’re going to continue to do routine training exercises. So let’s wait and see what happens. I don’t think we’ve heard the last word on this. I think that Mattis and his South Korean counterpart are going to try to continue some level of essential activity. And in that case, I don’t think it really has much of an impact on an extended negotiation.

SMITH: Can I just—a footnote on that, which I thought was interesting about the president’s language. Is he started to talk about the costs, right? And for an ally, South Korea, that is currently in the midst of a discussion over their special measures law, which pays for U.S. forces, the Trump administration wants them to take up 100 percent of the burden of U.S. stationing—of U.S. forces stationed in Korea. And I heard a negotiating strategy, not vis-à-vis Kim Jong-un, but vis-à-vis Moon Jae-in in that comment. I think it’s very dangerous. Very dangerous. And Secretary of Defense Mattis said on his way back from Shangri-La a week or so—or, two weeks or so again, that U.S. forces in cooperation with our allies would not be on the table in discussions with North Korea. And I too think we’re going to get a correction, or a slight course redefinition—(laughs)—in the coming days.

ROY: Dick, start here. (Laughter.) You’ll get it next time.

Q: I agree with the comment that the stakes for both Washington and North Korea suggest that this operation is going to extend, and extend, and extend. Neither side will want to say we failed. North Korea has its economic interests. Washington has its face. And you and I both know how diplomats can string out, and string out, and string out if they want to. So I think there’s going to be a mutual interest in both of these countries to keep this game going, at least on the surface. So that would be my observation.

The question I have is for you, Sheila. There was an article in the—I think it was The New York Times today, that suggested that there were not just dozens of Japanese who were kidnapped, but hundreds. That’s the first time I’ve heard that. Is that accurate?

SMITH: So in the beginning early sort of year or so, after the Abe—Prime Minister Abe came back into power, Kim Jong-un actually reached his hand out to the Japanese to have a conversation about abductees. At that time, there was a—there’s a long categorization of, you know, who might be living in North Korea, which Japanese citizens. So we’ve got several baskets. The first is the abductees, which were 17 of them, five of whom have come home the other 12 of which have not been fully accounted for, to the satisfaction of the Japanese government by Pyongyang.

There is a whole list of hundreds of other names, where there is circumstantial evidence that they are—they could have been kidnapped. They could have been taken. But there is circumstantial evidence only. There is not clear, definitive proof. And those are cases that the National Police Agency in Japan have scrupulously maintained. Their reporting is—a lot of them look a lot like the abductee cases, but they don’t know. So that’s the missing persons group, which is quite expansive.

There’s another group of Japanese who went to North Korea voluntarily in the 1960s when, as you may know, many North—many people who wanted to belong to North Korea actually went back home to Korea. They went to the North, which at that time was very prosperous. And they took Japanese wives. I think they’re predominantly women, frankly. But there are Japanese wives. And there’s families who want to know the whereabouts of those people. They were not abducted by the state, but those are also on the list of who the Japanese government would like the North Korean government to account for.

Q: Thank you.

SMITH: You’re welcome.

ROY: Let’s go—yeah.

Q: Building on Barbara Slavin’s—

ROY: Please identify yourself.

Q: Yes, yes. This is Raymond Tanter. I was on the Reagan-Bush National Security Council staff, and now I run a think tank called the Iran Policy Committee.

Building on Barbara Slavin’s point about Iran, it appears as if we should recall what Secretary Pompeo said when he was a member of Congress and director of Central Intelligence. He said that Iran and North Korea are proliferating partners. In this respect, unless we take into account Iran as a partner with North Korea, how can we trust any deal with North Korea? And don’t forget that the Iran deal was a political commitment. It was not signed. Formalized by the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, and that it was 110 pages long. So my question then is, how can we plug that gap between Iran and North Korea to take into account the implications of not doing so?

SAMORE: So, I mean, I assume one of the issues for Secretary Pompeo will be a commitment—how to verify it is tough—but a commitment from North Korea not to sell or transfer missile and nuclear technology. I assume that will be one of the elements of any agreement. Inshallah. I mean, on—(laughter)—on the diplomatic process, just let me mention, because getting a comprehensive agreement is going to be so difficult, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point Secretary Pompeo tries to do a mini-deal—you know, some initial step by North Korea, like a declaration which would be very significant, in exchange for some sanctions relief. And that would, at least, be I think an early show of good faith on the part of the North Koreans, that this time the process is—at least passes the laugh test, and they’re willing to acknowledge that they have nuclear facilities outside Yongbyon.

I mean, now, whether the North Koreans would agree to a mini-deal is another matter. But that’s an area where you could imagine Trump saying to Kim Jong-un: I really got to show some progress here, or this thing is going to fall apart. And come up with some smaller step. And Kim Jong-un has shown that he’s willing to take small steps, like destroying a nuclear test site and supposedly agreeing to destroy or dismantle or close down, you know, another missile test site. So I could imagine breaking up the negotiation in a way that would sustain it through a series of smaller steps.

SMITH: Can I just add a little point to that? You know, the Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi in 2002 went to Pyongyang. And Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, and Koizumi negotiated the Pyongyang Declaration. It’s interesting to me that when Abe first came to Mar-A-Largo this year he mentioned the Pyongyang Declaration, as did Secretary Pompeo at a certain point. So there may be other ways in which the Japanese-North Korean conversation, the U.S.-North Korean conversation, the South Korean-North Korean conversation may be able to produce mini-declarations that are additive. It may be a slightly different process than we’ve seen in the past, but key to that Pyongyang Declaration was a ballistic—a moratorium on ballistic missiles testing, which is a huge part of the Northeast Asian puzzle at the moment.

Q: What about the Iran card? (Off mic)—mention it—

SAMORE: Well, nothing was mentioned in the communique, so, right? We—I mean, chemical, biological weapons were not mentioned, ballistic missiles were not mentioned, the word verified wasn’t mentioned. I mean, it’s a very weak communique. And my understanding is that our negotiators went into this with quite a long list of substance that we tried to cook into the summit communique. And the North Koreans simply refused. And so we’ve ended up with this very bare-bones statement. And to the extent that sparring over the communique is sort of practice for the real negotiations, I think we’re starting in a pretty weak position.

ROY: Yes.

Q: Jessica Matthews from the Carnegie Endowment.

I kind of feel that even here, as well as in the whole country, there’s been a kind of a willing suspension of disbelief about what the meaning of denuclearization is. Even, Gary, you said they view it as an existential importance, but then you used that word quickly at the end, where I would say ever. And just to point out that on the point of the economic leverage and whether we’ve given something away that could be useful, Kim has said over and over again, including very recently, very explicitly, that if the Americans believe we will give up our nuclear force in exchange for economic benefits they are wrong. I mean, he has—he has said it over and over again. So I—

ROY: Question please.

Q: Well, the question is whether they—whether we haven’t kind of not fully grappled with the—rottenness isn’t—the vacuum at the core of what has just happened. (Laughter.)

ROY: Who wants to take that one on? (Laughter.)

SAMORE: So, you know, I mean, if this process produces constraint on the program, whether it’s just extension of the testing moratorium or, even better, if we freeze further production of fissile material and nuclear weapons, limit further development of long-range missiles, I think that’s a positive.

Q: Yeah, but how could you verify it?

SAMORE: Well, that will—I mean, I think verification of a fissile material freeze is possible, if the North Koreans declare the facilities. That’s why I said for me the real test to whether or not this is a serious process is whether the North Koreans provide a declaration that at least passes the laugh test. And the reason why the negotiations in the Bush administration broke down is because they refused to do that. So that’ll be—we may find out quite soon whether or not this is going to be any different from the last time.

Q: The last eight times. (Laughter.)

ROY: Yes, sir.

Q: Edwin Williamson. I’m a retired. I’m with Sullivan & Cromwell.

There are a couple of things that have been said that I have sort of serious misgivings about. First, the idea that Trump will present a treaty to the Senate that is even worse that the JCPOA I find totally implausible. Second, I do not understand the constant thread that we’ve already given up the leverage and so forth. The big thing that has puzzled me about these talks—the idea in the first place is that we know from the Obama half of the Libyan example that North Korea is not going to do the same thing. The second thing we know from—

ROY: Sir, were short on time. If you could get to your question.

Q: OK, sorry. So basically my question—so the question, it seems to me, is that given the unlikelihood of any outcome—any firm outcome on the nuclear issue, it seems to me that isn’t the most likely thing that this whole—that Kim’s whole act so far has been to increase his access to the economic benefits of the South Korean regime, and whether the U.S. resolve will not be strong enough as to impose the same sanctions regime on the South that we now have on the North?

ROY: Patricia, do you want to take that one?

KIM: So I’m not clear what you mean by imposing sanctions on South Korea, but I think you’re right that by going to this summit and signaling this new direction with North Korea, President Trump has basically greenlighted South Korea to go ahead and do all of the economic projects that it wanted to pursue, and the inter-Korean reconciliation that it wanted, that was held up because it wasn’t sure if this summit would happen, or where the U.S.-North Korea relationship is going.

And I guess your remark about, you know, would a treaty ever happen, I think the rationale from the Trump administration was that if we have a treaty and we have Congress ratify it, then this would ensure its longevity, and so Kim Jong-un would feel more comfortable. And I think that’s the logic. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get there, but that’s the logic behind sending something to Congress.

SAMORE: Yeah. I mean, I can see the North Koreans making that argument, because they’ve experienced in the change of administration from Clinton to Bush an administration that negotiated the ’94 agreement and then an administration that was hostile to it. So I could easily imagine the North Koreans saying, for our sake, we need something more permanent than an executive agreement. We need a treaty. And I just worry about the capacity of the Senate to ratify any treaty, no matter how perfect it is.

Q: My question wasn’t about whether there would be a treaty, but the quality of it.

SAMORE: Oh. I mean, that’s the dilemma for Trump, right? He is not going to get a perfect deal so, you know. (Laughs.)

ROY: We have time for a very quick question that requires a very quick answer. Sir.

Q: Charles Vichada (ph) here with the Principia Group.

This is directed to you, Mr. Ambassador, who spent a little time in China. What do the Chinese want out of all of this? And how will this bear in the negotiations?

ROY: Thank you. I will delegate—(laughter)—Patricia to answer. If I disagree with her answer, I’ll add something.

KIM: In very short, just the Chinese want a stable, authoritarian North Korea that is economically and politically dependent on Beijing. That’s what they want. And I think that’s kind of where we’re going now, so I think they’re very happy.

ROY: I agree with that. (Laughter.)

I want to thank all the members present for taking the time to come here. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR


 Iran is seeing its biggest protests since 2019 over the death of Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini. Pro-women, anti-morality police demonstrations evolving into broader anti-government protests. Drawing international support and a crackdown by the regime.

Saudi Arabia

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is fraught with complications. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves in the world, giving it influence over what Americans pay at the gas pump. At the same time, the kingdom’s human rights abuses are at odds with the United States’ stated democratic values. Who holds the power in this partnership? And what compromises are being made so the countries can work together?

Energy and Environment

Billion-dollar disasters such as Hurricane Ian are on the rise in the United States. Officials should take swift action to reduce the damage and protect Americans.