Why you should care
Because diplomacy and impulsivity do not go hand in hand.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
So what went wrong? Just about everything. The summit with Kim Jong Un, scheduled for June 12, that President Donald Trump canceled on Thursday was in many ways a train wreck waiting to happen. There were at least three big fumbles on the U.S. side, and the North Koreans appear to have revised their playbook several times in consultation with Beijing, stiffening the terms on which they were prepared to engage.
Both sides are hinting that the summit could still happen. One clue will be whether the North Koreans show up in Singapore to meet a U.S. team on the way there now; the North stood up the last U.S. advance team two weeks ago. Meanwhile, the North and South Korean leaders held a surprise meeting yesterday, presumably trying to pick up the pieces. Before looking ahead though let’s see how we got here.
China appears to have grown increasingly nervous about a bilateral meeting between the United States and North Korea that excludes Beijing.
On this side of the Pacific, the first major fumble was the impulsive way in which Trump jumped at the idea of a summit with the North Korean leader. It was an idea that South Korean officials brought to Washington on March 9 as they reported on their discussions with the North. When they mentioned it to Trump, he quickly accepted it on the spot. It’s doubtful that he consulted his advisers, and it is obvious that he did not consult any of our Asian allies, Japan in particular, or coordinate the idea with Beijing, whose influence with Kim has been growing.
The president then compounded the error by portraying the summit itself as a great accomplishment, welcoming his supporters’ suggestions that this could lead to a Nobel Prize for him. All of this raised expectations about a meeting that normally would do little more than bless a negotiation process among technical experts — something that would likely take months, if not years. It also represented a huge concession to Kim: granting him the symbolic elevation that comes with meeting the president of the United States before extracting any particular concessions.
A second U.S. negotiating tactic that contributed to the summit’s implosion was the U.S. demand that North Korea commit upfront to a complete and verifiable denuclearization. This is the goal, of course, but to insist that nothing can happen until Pyongyang firmly commits to this outcome must have left it wondering why it should negotiate at all.
Based on my visit to South Korea with Johns Hopkins graduate students in March, I believe South Korea is equally committed to denuclearization. But Seoul is prepared to work toward it gradually through a series of building block discussions. To be sure, that would possibly allow the North to pocket some concessions, but that is a risk in any arms control negotiation –– particularly with North Korea. Preventing that outcome, or calling time when it starts to happen, is what our diplomats would be there to do.
This problem was compounded when national security adviser John Bolton, and then Vice President Mike Pence, cited the Libyan denuclearization experience as one that might be replicated in the North Korean case — even though Trump had walked that back after Bolton’s remark. This was certain to spook Pyongyang because Libya’s surrender of its nuclear capability was followed by an uprising in which Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was murdered by his own people. Given that Kim’s ultimate goal is to preserve his regime and his own rule, the Libyan example is the worst one for anyone on the American side to cite. The North Korean reaction is so predictable and obvious that one has to ask: Did Bolton or Pence scuttle the process on purpose?
A third problem on the U.S. side is what appears to be inadequate coordination with South Korea. To be sure, there have been plenty of discussions between Washington and Seoul, but this clearly did not include coordination of American public statements, including the president’s decision to pull out the summit, which took the South by surprise. Moreover, Seoul would never have approved reference to the Libyan model, and I suspect they would have phrased the denuclearization demand in softer tones than Washington did.
For its part, China appears to have grown increasingly nervous about a bilateral meeting between the United States and North Korea that excludes Beijing. China is always playing a double game in its dealing with Washington on North Korea. On the one hand, Beijing shares American concern that reckless nuclear saber-rattling by the young, inexperienced North Korean leader can be destabilizing in Asia and beyond. It would like to calm the situation overall, and Pyongyang’s relations with Washington in particular. But China also does not want American influence with the North to grow to a point where it gives the United States a preeminent role on the peninsula. In other words, Beijing wants to maintain an independent North in close alliance with China. It wants some semblance of the status quo on the Korean Peninsula, just less dangerously configured.
Little is publicly known about Kim’s two visits to Beijing, but it is probably no accident that his rhetoric has stiffened in the aftermath of those meetings, particularly the second one on May 7.
Can this negotiation get back on track? It may be possible if all parties take this blowup as a lesson and as an opportunity to regroup and reassess.
Washington, Seoul, Beijing and Pyongyang now need to be in close contact diplomatically to take stock and reframe the terms of any future engagement. The North said immediately after Trump’s pull back that it remains ready to talk. One option would be to cast a Kim-Trump summit as a capstone event — rather than a kickoff to a negotiation process. Trump and Kim could issue a simple launching statement saying they have charged their diplomats to work closely with the aim of charting a path toward denuclearization. The two leaders would then meet, personally, ideally with Chinese and South Korean participation, at whatever point their professional diplomats managed to achieve sufficient convergence on outstanding issues. Japan, as a close ally threatened by Kim’s weaponry, could also be included — but at minimum must be kept fully informed.
There is no guarantee that this would work, but to the extent that these capitals can get the focus away from summitry and saber-rattling and toward real talks, a process and concrete objectives, the region and the world will be a safer place.