Why you should care

Because, in terms of historic foreign relations, this is all starting to look like familiar terrain.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

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).

As someone in government who spent a good deal of time on the North Korea problem, it looks to me like Trump has begun following a familiar playbook, despite his sharp criticism of past administrations’ supposedly “failed” efforts. The only thing that’s new? The resurrected summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, now set for June 12, following Trump’s hasty cancellation on May 24. The summit will likely be little more than a “get to know you” session (quoting Trump) that at most lays the foundation for what are likely to be prolonged negotiations among professional diplomats.

The United States has changed the most distinctive feature of its proposed engagement with North Korea — the demand for a firm, up-front commitment to verifiable, irreversible and complete denuclearization. Trump is now acknowledging that denuclearization may take time and need to happen in stages. We do not yet know the contents of the letter Kim’s intelligence chief delivered to Trump last Friday, but I’m willing to bet that it is full of pleasantries that skirt any firm commitments on denuclearization. I would also bet that any communiqué stemming from the June 12 meeting will mention denuclearization but will be evasive about its timing and the scope of nuclear reductions.

Trump may be discovering what veteran negotiators have known all along: It’s hard to get a sovereign country … to give up a military capability it sees as essential to its security.

Trump’s new tone shows a growing realism, and perhaps some education in how foreign policy negotiations differ from real estate bargaining. Despite all the ridicule he heaped on the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear agreement, Trump may be discovering what veteran negotiators have known all along: It’s hard to get a sovereign country, however vile its system, to give up a military capability it sees as essential to its security. All of this is reminiscent of Trump’s remark when frustrated by the health care debate: “Who knew health care was so complicated?” Well, just about everyone, and the same could be said about negotiating with North Korea.

The administration’s adjusted stance also shows closer alignment with our South Korean allies. They have been at this long enough to know the North will not yield quickly to pressure to eliminate its nukes. Seoul has always favored a gradual program combining pressure with step-by-step concessions in an effort to maneuver the North toward denuclearization.

South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, cut his political teeth working with politicians who favored what they called a “sunshine policy” — the idea that they could bring about change in North Korea by exposing it gradually to democratic ways, foreign investment, joint projects and family exchanges. Over time, this thinking went, modernity and freedom would infect the North and erode its authoritarian system.

The theory, which had its heyday in the late 1990s under former president Kim Dae-jung, was never fully tested because political turnover in Seoul and in Washington kept eroding support for it. A danger in this approach, of course, is that the North Koreans will bid for and pocket concessions in return for walking back part of their nuclear program while keeping alive its essentials and plotting a return to full status — a pattern they’ve followed in the past.

President Trump may rue the day he pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, a decision that will work against his success with North Korea in three ways. First, it alienated and angered other signers, such as the Europeans, China and Russia, whose help the United States will need in applying pressure on Pyongyang. Second, Trump ridiculed the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspection process and its reports that Iran was in compliance. This means that everyone will be watching to see if Trump can get even more intrusive inspections for North Korea — a very high bar. Third, Trump condemned the Iran pact for focusing only on nuclear issues and not including Iran’s regional meddling, missile tests and support for terrorism. This puts added pressure on him to reverse not just Pyongyang’s nuclear program but also its human rights abuses, missile testing and terrorist activities — raising the bar above what any previous administration has been able to achieve.

The administration should also worry about China exploiting the process. Kim Jong Un has met with Chinese president Xi Jinping twice in recent weeks. We don’t know the content of those conversations. It is likely, though, that Xi is advising Kim on how to deal with both South Korea and with Trump. Beijing probably sees a chance of using Kim’s engagement with Seoul to split South Korea from the United States. Also, given Trump’s evident eagerness for the summit, he probably also sees an opportunity to reduce or eliminate U.S. forces in South Korea.

So as June 12 draws near, it looks as if the summit will be either a complete bust from which one or both sides simply walk away — or, more likely, a launching pad for a long-term negotiating process fraught with difficult choices and potential traps. All this said, it is still a positive thing that the two sides have begun talking, rather than hurling insults and threats.

Seldom has a high-stakes U.S. negotiation been surrounded by so many uncertainties. So much so that the honest way to sum up where things are heading, regrettably, may be with one of President Trump’s favorite expressions: “We’ll see what happens.”

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