Trump rolls the dice on North Korea

Trump rolls the dice on North Korea

Building on the sustained goodwill between the two Koreas in the wake of the Pyeongchang Olympics, South Korean officials reached an agreement with their counterparts in the North to invite US President Donald Trump to a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un. When Trump answered “yes” to the invitation, a shocked South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong rushed into US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s office to draft the announcement. Is it now possible to end the post-Korean War stand-off, which has been ongoing since 1953? This high drama is being met with cautious optimism.
When Trump agreed to meet with Kim by May after the latter pledged to refrain from further nuclear tests and move toward denuclearization, the clock began ticking on the potential winners and losers of the upcoming encounter. 
North Korea has invited previous US presidents to meet in Pyongyang to discuss its nuclear and missile programs, but this is the first time a US president has accepted; and this comes in the wake of the Trump administration putting extreme pressure on Pyongyang. The North is perhaps beginning to feel the sanctions bite, especially the crackdown on foreign companies and shipping firms doing business there. The North also sees the US as being serious about stopping its bid to become a nuclear power, and thus Pyongyang now sees an opportunity to cement its status. That fact will be a difficult, if not impossible, task.
Importantly, the willpower of the South and North to unite against what they perceive to be extraordinarily bellicose behavior from Trump is now upon us. Starting over the new year and continuing through the Winter Olympics, both the South and North sought to lessen the tensions between them by illustrating to America a possible opening for negotiations. Trump had previously used very harsh language against the North, with the prospect of a “Plan B” threatening kinetic strikes that might cost hundreds of thousands of lives on the Korean Peninsula. That was thought to be a main driver in making an offer of talks between Pyongyang and Washington. From the cultural perspective of the Koreans, at the most basic of levels, whether from the North or the South, the perception of stopping American hostility was at the core of their mutual discussion. How South Korean envoys Chung and Suh Hoon carried a personal message from Kim to Trump is illustrative of the Korean point of view of avoiding a military confrontation and ending the war. For the North, getting your “juche” (self-reliance) on just took on a new meaning.
 

The mood should be encouraging for a potential Washington-Pyongyang summit, but the US needs to do some serious preparatory work to ensure it can balance the many conflicting interests during historic meeting.

Dr. Theodore Karasik


The next step, the meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim, will occur in April at Panmunjom. The talks at this site, which is infamous in Korean War history, will be a first in lessening tensions between the two countries, potentially by lifting the South’s sanctions against the North, including those introduced after the North sunk the battleship Cheonan in 2010, leaving 46 South Korean sailors dead. Now, based on previous summits between former North leader Kim Jong-il and South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun in the 2000s, discussions will focus on infrastructure plans for the Kaesong Industrial Zone as well as the Mount Kumgang tourist area for the reuniting of families.
 However, Trump’s sudden gesture also brings into sharp relief the possibility of a reunification between North and South. Talks between the US and the North are already giving impetus to those groups in the South who are pushing for reunification. But beware the consequences of rushing into any policy plan: Reunifying Korea is not the same as West and East Germany. The Koreas are complicated by a host of issues, ranging from social and economic wealth to disparity, as well as unique social attributes that make Koreans exclusive and exceptional within their own society, thus complicating any reunification scheme. Some South Koreans abhor the idea of reunification. 
For Russia and China, Trump’s sudden move brings a moment of triumph. Both Moscow and Beijing now feel that the ability to control events on the Korean Peninsula is in their hands. Both countries are perhaps avoiding a major military confrontation on their borders and the consequences of such an action on the geopolitics and geo-economics of Northeast Asia. There is no doubt that Russia and China have a vested interest in maintaining North Korea as an intact state and a neighbor under their protection, no matter the circumstances. The North reached its nuclear status with both countries’ help through missile parts and the miniaturization of nuclear warheads, thus there is a victory lap for Pyongyang’s Chinese and Russian allies.
The North’s intentions in the wake of the Trump announcement are going to matter, especially with regard to the timetable for the Iran nuclear deal. With Trump’s Iran deadline set to pass in the coming weeks, the Trump-Kim meeting will weigh heavily on American, European, and Iranian minds. Trump’s intention to rip up the Iran agreement is likely to proceed and an American policy that separates North Korea from Iran may be a non-starter. Here a problem emerges about squaring the future of the Iran deal with any North Korean nuclear negotiation. Given that many anti-Iran analysts link Tehran and Pyongyang together in terms of sharing nuclear and missile technology, the decoupling of this axis from the overall US approach to Iran is now facing a contradiction: If the US can negotiate with Pyongyang, which already has nuclear weapons, why is Iran being put in a separate box? Perhaps the Europeans will arrive at a good answer for Tehran.
To be sure, Arab states can breathe a sigh of relief for now thanks to Trump’s sudden announcement. Avoiding a Korean Peninsula confrontation is a priority for the Gulf states and the Middle East in general because such a conflict would severely damage future Asian investment in the region, simply because of the estimated cost of reconstruction in the wake of a full-blown Korean Peninsula contingency.
Overall, the mood should be encouraging for a Trump-Kim summit. During the Cold War, many negotiations between the Americans and Soviets were ad hoc and sudden in the wake of confrontations such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. While giving Trump the benefit of the doubt for now, serious work needs to start ahead of the May meeting. Hopefully Trump’s gamble will not result in snake eyes for the US.
 
  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues. Twitter: @tkarasik
 
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