For All His Deals, Trump Has Never Faced an Adversary Like Kim Jong-un

Jun 11 2018

By David E. Sanger and Choe Sang-Hun (*) – The New York Times

SINGAPORE — President Trump has imagined himself at the center of high-stakes nuclear negotiations since at least the mid-1980s, when he tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Reagan administration that it needed a New York real estate deal maker to lead arms-control talks with the Soviet Union.

When, in 1989, he ran into the man who filled that job for President George H.W. Bush, he had a bit of negotiating advice: Arrive late, poke your finger into your adversary’s chest and swear at him with a vulgar insult, he told Richard R. Burt.

Now, Mr. Trump finally has a nuclear negotiation of his own to conduct, not with the Russians, but with a North Korean leader half his age, Kim Jong-un, the country’s volatile, repressive leader.

But at Tuesday’s summit meeting, Mr. Trump seems certain not to follow his own advice on how to handle the talks, which involve a nuclear arsenal that is much smaller but in some ways scarier, because of North Korea’s unpredictability, than what threatened the United States during the Cold War.

Mr. Trump has arrived in Singapore bringing offers of a peace treaty, an American diplomatic presence in Pyongyang and economic aid, including burger joints in the North, rather than jabs and threats.

And for all his boasts about his deal-making prowess, Mr. Trump has never been in a face-off with an adversary like this one, a ruthless dictator who has imprisoned huge numbers of his citizens in brutal gulags and summarily executed or assassinated challengers.

He has also never been in a negotiation with the risks of failure so stark.

Neither has Mr. Kim, who, until this year, had never met with another world leader nor left his country as head of state. He will be surrounded, however, by officials who have worn down the United States in one stalemate after another for decades.

Both his father and grandfather agreed, as far back as 1994, to trade away their country’s atomic ambitions for energy, aid and the North’s reintegration with the world. All those agreements started with immense promise, and ultimately failed.

How Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim — both thin-skinned and eager never to show weakness — will interact is the great drama of the summit meeting.

Over the past year, to gain leverage, they have both shown themselves adherents of the “madman” theory of negotiation, expressing a willingness to take extreme action to get what they want.

Mr. Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” down upon North Korea and to “totally destroy” it.

North Korea, which has demonstrated it has solved the mysteries of merging nuclear warheads with missiles, warned in November it had successfully tested a missile with a “super-large heavy warhead which is capable of striking the whole mainland of the U.S.”

Despite all the bellicose rhetoric, including the exchange of personal insults, both men seem determined to declare the encounter a success, no matter how vague the outcome.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim are heavily invested at home in declaring a positive result, reached on their terms, even if the details are left to others.

And both know they are highly unlikely at this meeting to resolve their differences on the weapons themselves, which is why they may focus instead on a peace treaty that would end a 65-year-old armistice and enable them, in Henry Kissinger’s famously overly optimistic line about Vietnam, to declare that peace is at hand.

If the relationship goes downhill from there, as it usually does in interactions between Washington and Pyongyang, it will come after the summit meeting concludes, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart arm-wrestle over the meaning, and pace, of “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” which is how Mr. Pompeo described the only acceptable outcome.

Most experts believe that standard is unattainable in the case of North Korea, and that insisting on it sets up the Trump administration for failure. But Mr. Pompeo has repeatedly doubled down on this objective, as recently as Friday, and so it has become the only measure of success.

And as this negotiation plays out, attaining that goal is pretty much the only way that Mr. Trump can plausibly claim he got more out of North Korea than President Barack Obama got out of Iran.

For Mr. Trump, the looming question now is whether his bet that Mr. Kim wants economic development more than nuclear weapons is right.

“I understand why the administration is offering so many carrots, but I’m afraid Trump thinks Kim is a businessman,” said Jung H. Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who oversaw North Korea analysis for United States intelligence agencies until a year ago.

“What he’s forgetting is that Kim isn’t looking for wealth,” he said. “He has all the wealth in the country. He’s looking for legitimacy.”

And Mr. Kim is on his way to obtaining that stature as a global statesman, having met twice now with the presidents of China and South Korea. At 9 a.m. Tuesday in Singapore, he can add Mr. Trump to his list.

Some of those who have prepared Mr. Trump for dealing with Korea, who insisted on anonymity to speak about their briefings with the president, say they worry that he is so supremely confident in his negotiating skills that he has eschewed detailed briefings on how Mr. Kim thinks about the world.

When Mr. Trump said over the weekend that he would know “in one minute” after talking with Mr. Kim whether the North Korean was ready to denuclearize, it was a declaration that negotiating instinct, rather than deep study of the topic, was the way to success.

“Just my touch, my feel,” he said. “It’s what I do.”

The North Koreans have their own style of negotiating, too. When the United States was discussing an armistice to halt the 1950-53 Korean War, the chief North Korean delegate embarrassed his American counterpart by showing up for talks in the American ambassador’s car — which his invading troops had seized as they rampaged through Seoul at the war’s start.

The North Koreans had also secretly sawed several inches off the American delegate’s chair so their negotiator could look down on him during the haggling.

None of that gamesmanship is likely to happen Tuesday. But the opening minute may say a lot.

When Mr. Kim met the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, at the Demilitarized Zone in late April, he took his hand and guided him over into North Korean territory, an unexpected power play. There will be no equivalent border on Tuesday, but Mr. Kim will surely be looking to use whatever edge he can get.

And he has two primary sources of leverage: his newly acquired capabilities to put San Francisco, and maybe Chicago, within reach of his nuclear weapons, and North Korea’s longstanding ability to destroy Seoul with conventional artillery arrayed along the Demilitarized Zone.

While Mr. Kim may see utility in giving up some of those capabilities in return for economic benefits, he knows his nuclear arsenal is his best bet to stay in power.

The question is how Mr. Trump broadens his repertoire of incentives to Mr. Kim that go beyond the economy.

He could dangle the withdrawal of tens of thousands of American forces in the South, whose presence he has long argued should be ended anyway because of overextended American defense commitments and the South’s trade surplus.

He could volunteer to keep American bombers and nuclear-capable submarines and ships from brandishing their weapons on visits to the South — knowing that if needed, in the most extreme nuclear emergency, an American missile could hit the North from Nebraska.

But each side faces the issue of how much it can trust the other.

The few South Korean officials, including Mr. Moon, who have met with Mr. Kim say they have all come away with a conviction that the North’s leader is sincere in his commitment to strike a deal and that he has a broader vision of his security than his father did.

“Chairman Kim once again clearly expressed his firm commitment to a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Moon declared after his second meeting with Mr. Kim last month.

South Korea’s president added, “What is not so clear to him is how firmly he can trust the United States’ commitment to ending hostile relations and providing security guarantees for his government should it denuclearize.”

Regardless of the outcome of the Singapore meeting, Mr. Kim has already won a lot. Becoming the first North Korean leader to meet with a sitting American president, Mr. Kim has proved to his people that he is a force the Americans have to reckon with.

That may be enough, at least for now. June 11, 2018


* David E. Sanger is a national security correspondent and a Times senior writer. / Choe Sang-Hun is the Korea correspondent for The New York Times. Before joining the newspaper in 2005, he worked for The Associated Press for 11 years.



History of US-North Korea deals shows hard part is making them stick

Julian Borger * – The Guardian

Singapore summit follows series of agreements torpedoed by mistrust and unkept promises

Singapore – It is Donald Trump’s recurring boast that with the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un, he has succeeded in negotiations with North Korea where his predecessors failed. But the claim obscures a long history of agreements made and broken by both countries.

The lesson of two major deals, in 1994 and 2005, is that it is much easier to reach agreements than to implement them. In fact, the complex, fraught process of implementation has usually brought with it new flashpoints and new crises.

Trump’s looming Singapore summit with Kim will be the first meeting between US and North Korean leaders, but that is largely because previous US presidents have balked at giving the Pyongyang regime such recognition and prestige without substantive progress towards disarmament.

While North Korea has repeatedly signalled it is willing to give up its nuclear weapons, the conditions for that to happen may be too high a price to pay for the US and its allies.

“The worst case scenario is learning the North Korean definition of denuclearization is untenable with international community’s expectations,” says Jenny Town, the assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “When they think of denuclearization, they think it will come about over decades.”

“It’s also dependent on having good relations with the US, and North Korea has seen the US pull out of many international agreements, so they won’t trust a simple promise, they want to build trust over time.”

Kim is acutely aware of the fate of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up his weapons programmes only to have European and US forces bomb the country during an uprising against him.

Other possibilities include a meeting relatively light on substance, focused on building goodwill between both sides and positive photo opportunities instead of touching on issues that could cause conflict.

There is little chance of a concrete agreement of any kind resulting from the summit. Beginning negotiations with a meeting between the two leaders, before any details have been hammered out, is always risky. The meeting will likely be followed by months, if not years, of negotiations at the lower levels before anything is signed.

Each time a deal has been close, the same basic bargain has been on the table: that North Korea relinquish its nuclear arsenal in return for a mix of security and economic incentives.

In 1992 – the first time the US and North Korea engaged diplomatically since the 1953 armistice – the Pyongyang regime faced similar isolation and intense economic pressure as it does today. The collapse of the Soviet Union robbed the regime of a steadfast ally and patron. Meanwhile, Beijing was telling North Korea to undergo the same transformative economic reforms as China. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, was facing an existential threat.

Then, like now, rapprochement between North and South Korea created a diplomatic opening for the US. In January 1992, the two Koreas signed an agreement on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. That led to meetings between American and North Korean diplomats at the US mission to the United Nations in New York, where the two delegations eyed each other warily after three decades of silence.

The first thing that struck Robert Gallucci, who became chief US negotiator in 1993, was his counterparts’ identical lapel badges portraying the Great Leader. “I tried to imagine us sitting there with lapel pictures of Bill Clinton and I just couldn’t,” he recalled.

The first two years of US engagement with North Korea were highly volatile, in which diplomatic breakthroughs were interspersed by dangerous crises.

North Korea made an agreement in January 1992 with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to allow its nuclear complex at Yongbyon to be inspected, and at the same time the US called off its joint military exercises with South Korea.

The consequent mood of optimism was short-lived. The arrival of the IAEA inspectors led rapidly to a conflict on how much of the Yongbyon nuclear plant they could see. The escalation culminated in the North Koreans unloading spent fuel roads from the Yongbyon reactor, a necessary precursor to extracting plutonium. The Clinton administration started reviewing plans for air strikes to stop them and the two sides came close to war.

Just before Washington got to the point of ordering the evacuation of US nationals from the peninsula, the former president Jimmy Carter stepped in. He flew to Pyongyang for a personal meeting with Kim Il-sung, putting the diplomacy back on track and providing the impetus for the first major accord between the two countries, the 1994 Agreed Framework.

According to the deal, North Korea would dismantle its reactor at Yongbyon, the source of its plutonium, in return for two civilian light water nuclear power stations, generally seen as less of a proliferation risk. Until those reactors were built, North Korea would receive shipments of US-financed fuel oil.

The deal was sealed in Geneva and the North Koreans invited the US negotiators to their mission to toast its success. One of the US diplomats, Joel Wit, was on the point of downing his shot when he spotted snakes at the bottom of the bottle. It was snake liquor, popular across east Asia for special occasions.

“Snake liquor really does smell like there has been a dead animal in the bottle, because there is,” Wit said. “I didn’t drink it, and as I turned around to put the glass down on the table I noticed that all the other Americans put theirs away. I’m not sure if the North Koreans noticed.”

From such tentative beginnings, the Agreed Framework would last nearly nine years, but its implementation would be a constant struggle. A Republican-dominated Congress did its best to slow down fuel deliveries, and the construction timetable for the reactors was continually postponed.

It later emerged that North Korea had been cheating by pursuing a secret uranium route to making a bomb. That was enough for the hawks in the Bush administration, John Bolton among them, to kill off the Agreed Framework.

The accord’s defenders suggest that the uranium enrichment programme was the regime’s hedge against the US reneging on the deal, and it could have been closed down through negotiations. They also argue that the Agreed Framework held back the weapons programme for most of the 1990s.

Christopher Hill, who became the Bush administration’s chief negotiator with North Korea, disagreed with the decision to end the Agreed Framework. “My own view is we lost control of the plutonium process, we lost inspectors on the ground. We lost the capacity to understand what was going on there,” Hill said.

After a break in contact of more than two years, Hill was given the task of re-establishing contacts with the North Koreans under the format of multilateral, six-party talks. Those negotiations eventually led to a 2005 joint statement of principles to guide future negotiations, which included some of the elements of the Agreed Framework, such as the eventual provision of light water reactors, and a lot of language that will be on the table in Tuesday’s talks between Trump and Kim.

The statement called for “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula … in a phased manner in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action.’”

The joint statement once more raised hopes that the US and North Korea had turned a corner in their relationship, but it began to fall apart almost immediately. Within weeks, the US Treasury imposed new sanctions, freezing $23m (£17m) in North Korean assets in a bank in the Chinese territory of Macau, using counter-terror legislation. It was a relatively small amount of money, but it infuriated the North Koreans and the Chinese, who saw it as a violation of the spirit of the joint statement. US diplomats who had negotiated the 2005 statement were also taken by surprise.

“I think it’s fair to say that one part of the US government was not particularly in touch with another part of US government, not for the first or last time,” said Hill, who saw it as an act of sabotage by hawks such as Bolton in the Bush administration. “I think the real purpose of it was to screw up the negotiations.”

As relations spiralled downwards, North Korea tested seven ballistic missiles in July 2006, and conducted its first nuclear test in October the same year.

The US ended up refunding North Korea the money it had frozen in Macau, and provided shipments of fuel oil, and in return the regime closed down its Yongbyon reactor and provided a partial inventory of its nuclear programme. But the six-party talks became bogged down in the question of verification. As before, North Korea was prepared to allow inspectors in but sought to limit what they could see.

Kim Jong-un has struck one deal with the US, in February 2012. Under the Leap Year agreement, the regime undertook once more to suspend enrichment in Yongbyon under IAEA verification and to suspend nuclear and missile testing, in exchange, the Obama administration pledged to send food aid.

Once more, the deal fell apart within weeks when North Korea conducted missile launches, which it insisted were for satellite deployment. The US deemed them a breach of the Leap Year agreement and halted plans to send food aid.

Through three generations of the Kim dynasty, and successive US administrations, the biggest obstacle has not been reaching an agreement but making it stick. This has not only been a result of North Korea seeking to circumvent deals it has made, but a recurrent problem of US administrations sending conflicting signals, as different factions vie for control of policymaking.

Whatever form of words Trump and Kim Jong-un agree on Tuesday, the history of US negotiations with North Korea suggest an agreement on paper is just the start, not the end, of any effort to achieve a real compromise. June 11, 2018


* Julian Borger is the Guardian’s world affairs editor. He was previously a correspondent in the US, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

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