Insights and Caveat on Trump-Kim Agenda
Washington correspondent and columnist for The Korea Times
(Updated March 28, 2018)
Things are moving very fast on the Korean peninsula. We will soon witness a flurry of
summits in the next two months.
Kim Jong Un paid a surprise visit to Beijing yesterday (March 27) and told Xi Jinping that
the issue of denuclearization will be resolved, "if South Korea and the United States take gradual,
phased synchronized actions."
President Trump said he will meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by the end of
May. No change has been announced to this plan as of now.
The latest poll by Fox News released on Sunday showed 63% of the public approve Trump's
meeting with the North Korean dictator, and 30% disapprove.
At the end of April, South Korean President Moon Je-in will also meet with Kim Jong Un.
On March 29, the South Korean unification minister will meet with the North Korean unification
committee chairman, Ri Sun-gwon at Panmunjom to discuss time and agenda for the inter-
Moon said that if these two summits go well, a trilateral meeting among Moon, Trump and
Kim could be possible, presumably to seal a deal that will take care of contending issues related
Moon is also seeking a summit meeting with Japan and a trilateral with Japan and China as
well as another meeting with President Trump. Abe of Japan will meet with Trump soon and he
also reportedly is seeking a summit with Kim Jong Un. All these summits could happen prior to
a Trump-Kim summit.
Last week, Moon made a perplexing comment at the first meeting of his summit preparation
team. He said, "The South and the North should not harm or interfere with each other, but
should prosper together in peace, whether living together or separately."
The semantics of this complex sentence may mean:
- First, unification is not a priority.
- Second, he may seek the confederation formula of a one state with two systems.
- Third, he may think that peace and coexistence is the greatest good that the two Koreas
should seek now.
Any conduct of foreign policy involves two aspects; process and policy.
Criticisms of President Trump's decision to meet with Kim Jong Un were based on these two
grounds: specifically, disregard of normal process and risks of his policy decision.
Trump made his decision on the spot during a briefing by a South Korean delegation. He did
so after hearing about Kim's commitment to denuclearization and his "eagerness to meet with
President Trump as soon as possible."
There was no letter from Kim. His message was conveyed to Trump by South Korean
national security adviser Chung Eui-yong. The president let Chung announce his surprise
decision at the White House on March 8.
The president did not consult his advisers before he made his decision. He did not go through
a normal decision-making process of interagency discussion or a "principals meeting".
In addition, the president departed from the traditional practice of summitry. A president
does not directly negotiate a deal with a foreign leader. He waits until all the details of agreement
have been worked out.
In this context, the order of the normal negotiating process seems to have been reversed from
bottom up to top down.
However, President Trump has constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy as he
pleases. He can fire or hire anybody for his administration, although most high-level positions
are subject to Congressional advice and consent: for senate confirmation.
He was elected on a pledge that he was going to be different from his predecessors.
But, if the President disregards advice and talking points prepared by his national security
advisers, as we heard was the case on his recent call to Putin, Trump's unpredictability could be
a source of risk and an element of surprise at the same time.
As a matter of policy, whom the president chooses for his national security team matters.
Trump's appointments of John Bolton, former UN ambassador, to replace HR McMaster as
national security adviser and Mike Pompeo, CIA director, as Secretary of State send a
confounding message on the direction of the president's policy.
How will this change affect a looming U.S.-DPRK summit? Both Pompeo and Bolton share
a strong hawkish view of North Korea. Bolton's views are well known. Critics call him a super-
hawk, a radical, a war monger, or even "the second most dangerous American." The North has
called him "human scum" and a "blood sucker."
Like McMaster, Bolton has advocated a preventive strike against Korea before they develop
their nuclear missile capability to strike the United States. "A military strike is dangerous but
North Korea's nuclear missile is more dangerous," he said.
In contrast, Pompeo did not publicly call for a military strike. Like Bolton, he supports
regime change in the North. He advocated for removal of Kim Jong Un from the North Korean
nuclear program, perhaps through decapitation operations.
Shortly after Trump's announcement of a new security adviser, Bolton said on Fox News,
"Frankly, what I have said in private is now behind me. The important thing is what the president
says and the advice I give him." Many are already concerned about advice that he will give.
CNN reported, "Bolton promised the president that he will not start any wars."
In 2003, Bolton almost aborted Collin Powell's effort to bring North Korea to the six-party
talks, after he criticized Kim Jong Il as a tyrannical dictator.
Last week, Bolton also responded to concerns that a person of radical views should not be
national security adviser. Bolton does not view that his new role should be just staffing or
brokering views of competing agencies and forwarding recommendations to the president.
He said his job will be to discuss and coordinate views with other members of the security
team, then make a list of options with comments for the president to choose from.
Ultimately, as Bolton said, even the prospect of a Trump-Kim meeting will depend on
And on Kim Jong Un. Would Kim cancel his invitation? He is closely watching what's
happening in Washington.
The president is the ultimate decision maker on matters of war and peace. White House
spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders has made it clear that the President will be the ultimate
negotiator on the North Korean nuclear issue.
It's amazing and even amusing to watch what happens under the Trump administration: fake
news becomes real news and a reality TV show becomes real politics. He sends conflicting
messages and changes subjects momentarily. Trump is Trump.
I used to argue that foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics, so one should look in
to Washington politics to understand its North Korea policy. We should do the same on South
Korea and North Korea to understand their policies.
But today, to understand U.S. North Korea policy, one should study Trump. One thing we
know about Trump: he wants to denuclearize North Korea.
Regarding the negotiation of denuclearization, starting from top is not a bad idea. It can save
a lot of time if carried out right. Koreans traditionally prefer a deductive approach to a solution.
They favor a general agreement on the top that allows the lower tiers to work out the details for
It would be worth to consider a "comprehensive package deal" to encompass general
principles of solution to all issues in contention, including denuclearization, controls on missile
development, a peace mechanism, normalization, and economic cooperation.
The North Koreans prefer this format of settlement, and this modality has been discussed and
used a few times in the past.
The 2005 September 19 Statement of the six-party talks was a good example of a
comprehensive package deal.
In that statement, all participants -- the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and
Russia -- agreed to achieve a denuclearized Korean peninsula, (not just to denuclearize North
Korea,) to support a process of normalization between the North and the U.S., to build a
permanent peace regime, and to cooperate on economic assistance to the North.
The problem was there was no sequential order of implementation for these agreements, with
the U.S. focusing on denuclearization.
A presidential team is expected to start working soon with North Korea to set up a summit,
determining venue, time and agenda. In the meantime, joint military drills between the U.S. and
South Korea begin on April 1.
The North Koreans are expected to show their "concrete and verifiable actions" in support of
their commitment by refraining from nuclear and missile tests and other strategic provocations
during the exercises.
If they fail to keep their word, it could effectively cancel a summit. If the expected Moon's
meeting with Kim Jong Un fails, it could also kill a Trump-Kim summit.
As for Kim Jong Un's motive for a summit with Trump: nobody really knows. In my view, it
was a combination of the effective pressures from economic sanctions and threats of military
action and their confidence in negotiating leverage from the advancement of their nuclear and
Pyongyang's propaganda outputs have denied that they were yielding to the sanction or
military pressures. It appears that the sanctions effectively started biting the North Korean
However, considering North Korea's resilient survivability, it is doubtful the sanctions
would lead to a collapse of North Korea.
A long list of risks of an upcoming summit includes:
- Trump could be played by Kim Jong Un, who has been recognized as his counterpart on
equal footing. (We should trust Trump's judgement. Trump may be erratic but not stupid.)
- The North will never give up its nuclear weapons. They will seek recognition as a nuclear
weapons state to negotiate arms reduction. (The goal is to denuclearize.)
- The North has a different concept of denuclearization; they want to stop at freeze and keep
the stockpile; they also demand the denuclearization of the South. (The term and its scope should
be defined from the outset, as complete dismantlement as it was used in the Agreed
- The North will seek an easing of the administration's effective maximum pressure
campaign. (The U.S. and the international community are in control of sanctions. Cooperation
of China and South Korea will be critical.)
- North Korea will cheat again on any future agreement, while earning time to complete their
nuclear program. (Strict verification measures are needed. Trust but verify.)
- Any negotiation will be protracted for many years, going through several hases of
agreement and verification. (It depends on the political will of both leaders. Implementation
should take longer than reaching agreement.)
- A peace treaty will precipitate U.S. troop withdrawal. Their goal is to unify the peninsula
under communism. (The military presence is based on the U.S.-South Korea mutual defense
treaty. Communization of the peninsula is the North's pipedream.)
- No negotiation is needed as Kim's regime shall collapse from mounting pressure of
sanctions and isolation and from a possible uprising from within. (Collapse theories of the past
30 years have been a wishful thinking. proven wrong. An implosion is unlikely.)
- Kim's offer of denuclearization talks is a trap to drive a wedge between South Korea and
the United States. (It is up to South Korea and the U.S. to keep a strong alliance. Now
Pyongyang is trying to reach Washington through Seoul, instead of by passing it.)
- It is morally wrong to compromise with the tyrannical regime of Kim Jong Un who killed
his uncle, his half-brother and hundreds of dissidents. He runs a gulag of political prisoners,
abusing human rights.
(As Bill Perry said in his final report, we should take North Korea as it is, not as we wish it
to be, if we want to seek a negotiated settlement. If the economy improves and tensions are
removed, there will be a good chance for improving human rights in the North.)
Most of these concerns are legitimate based on experience and current assessments of the
North's intention. The veracity or validity of these concerns should be tested through a thorough
process of negotiation.
Critics offer little optimism on the prospect of a positive outcome that Trump may be able to
pull off from a historic summit with the North Korean leader, if it takes place.
The news of a potential face-to-face meeting with the leader of the totalitarian North has
already brought about a dramatic turnaround from talks of war to talks of peaceful resolution.
In the current mood of thaw on the Korean peninsula that began with the PyeongChang
Olympics, even after an announcement of resumption of joint U.S.-South Korea military drills,
we do not hear new North Korean provocations or talk of going to war.
Last week, The 38th North at SAIS reported there were no activities noticed in the North
Korean sites for nuclear tests.
Bolton may be able to change the current mood of detent back to threats of war.
President Moon is keeping the U.S. informed of his engagement with the North, while
pursuing the same goal of denuclearization. He keeps giving credit to Trump's tough policy for
Kim's turnaround. Trump seems to relish Moon's compliment.
There is a promising side of the upcoming Trump-Kim meeting. The two leaders seem to
share the kind of leadership trait for making arbitrary decisions for a quick solution and a similar
penchant for quick, decisive action.
In the North, Kim Jong Un is the only one who can make a strategic decision that cam
change the course of North Korea. Under his autocratic system, Kim is the only one who is
immune from criticism or opposition from within.
Trump and Kim stopped a year-long exchange of insults and threats of war. However,
Pyongyang has been silent on Trump's decision. Kim Jong Un is yet to respond to Trump's
acceptance of his invitation.
To reconfirm his commitment to denuclearization, he can deliver a letter to the White House,
perhaps through the New York channel.
There are a few other things Kim can do:
He can release three Americans detained in the North. He can express his willingness to
resume joint recovery operations of the remains of American servicemen missing in the Korean
War. He can return the Pueblo ship which is on display in the North as a symbol of their victory
In addition, he can announce his willingness to suspend the work on expanding his nuclear
arsenal, while renewing his promise of a moratorium on new tests while in talks.
Considering Trump's statements so far and the views of his new security advisers, the
president may include the following statements in his talking points:
"The U.S. will not tolerate a North Korean nuclear-missile capability threatening the
United States. We are seeking a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North
Korea through all means possible. We will not exclude use of military force if necessary. We
will never recognize your country as a nuclear weapons state. We are not seeking a freeze. I
don't want to repeat the past mistakes. I don't want to waste time. I want to succeed in our
"The United States is not seeking war. We are not seeking regime change or collapse of
North Korea. We won't have to keep sanctions if you abandon your nuclear and missile
programs. The U.S. will be willing to provide security assurances and economic cooperation to a
denuclearized North Korea.
"We are willing to work with your government to improve human rights in your country.
"We support progress in inter-Korean relations. But, the U.S. military presence in South
Korea is not negotiable."
North Korea's demands are several and they are well known, including:
- Termination of perceived U.S. hostile policy against the DPRK.
- Lifting of economic sanctions.
- Normalization with the U.S.
- A peace treaty.
- Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea.
- Economic assistance from the international community.
Kim Jong Un's talking points may repeat or add to his previous statements as the following:
"I also want to succeed in our talks. Our country will have no reason to keep our nuclear
weapons, if you end your hostile policy, guarantee the security of our sovereign system, and
remove military threats against our country.
"A denuclearized Korean peninsula is my grandfather's last will. My father once said the
U.S. does not have to be 'a sworn enemy of one hundred years'. We want peaceful coexistence.
But, we will not surrender to your pressure.
"There will be no nuclear or missile tests while talks are underway. The DPRK will not
oppose normal U.S. joint military drills with the South. Our weapons are for deterrence. We
have no intention of attacking the United States first. We will not transfer our nuclear capability
to a third party.
"If peace is settled, the DPRK will not oppose discussing an adjustment to the role of the
U.S. military presence in South Korea."
A single hastily arranged summit, of course, is not expected to resolve all the issues once and
for all. But they can set the tone for a negotiated solution, they can agree on a general road map
We have gone through this path of negotiation before. We should do better this time.
We can review what went wrong in the past, and we should be mindful of a big change in the
Today's North Korea has a considerably advanced nuclear and missile capability: with 20-40
bombs soon to reach 100, and ICBMs that the North claims have been completed.
U.S. estimates warned that the North will complete its ICBM within a few months.
Pompeo's prediction of its timeline of a few months is passing. The North has not conducted a
new test to prove the reentry capability of their ICBM.
We know Bolton's approach will be seeking a quick removal of the entire nuclear arsenal
from North Korea. This would require Kim Jong Un's complete, unconditional surrender. I
don't think that is going to happen.
Instead, the negotiators could still consider and discuss a two-stage solution through freeze
and elimination or a three- stage formula for freeze, dismantlement, and final disposition of the
Kim Jong Un has just said the issue of denuclearization should be resolved by phased,
synchronized actions by both side. The North always favored the principle of simultaneous
action: "word for word, action for action."
Verification measures should be built in for each stage.
Solution to Kim Jong Un's missile program could be even trickier and more treacherous.
Negotiation should focus on elimination of the North's ICBM, while allowing their right to
explore space science.
For Trump, time is a critical factor as his term in office is limited. He may wish to resolve
this issue in time so that he can take it to his next presidential election campaign or even to
November elections. In contrast, Kim Jong Un has no term limit to his power.
In my view, it is not impossible to find a concrete path to the resolution to this nuclear and
missile issue before the next U.S. presidential election.
Whether Trump can pull off a successful deal during his first term in office will depend on
how much reward he is ready to give to North Korea and how soon.
Negotiation is a process of give-and-take. If Trump wins in his gamble, war will be avoided
and peace will be achieved. And that will be good for everybody.
This page last updated March 28, 2018 jdb