14.05.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

What Could Kim Jong Un and Trump Agree on?


The summit between North and South Korea, to be held on April 27th, 2018, has increased the likelihood that the US and DPRK leaders will meet. If we leave out the issues of protocol, the ultimate choice of where the meeting is to take place and discussions about how useful this meeting is, let us imagine a situation where Trump and Kim miraculously ended up at the same table and decided not to just talk but to come to an agreement, find ways to reach a consensus, and not to compare the size their respective ‘red buttons’. Undoubtedly, neither one of them could afford to lose face, which is why the outcome of their agreement should at least enable Trump (who depends far more on public opinion than Kim Jong Un does) to sell the results of this summit not as a capitulation, but a diplomatic victory.

Firstly, let us consider what each side may agree to without losing face while, at the same time, keeping up appearances and ensuring cost-free results. This is problematic for Trump, as from the point of view of American conservatives and Trump opponents, meeting with the leader of an evil empire is, in itself, a serious concession to him, according to Dick Cheney “The US does not negotiate with evil but defeats it”.

Kim has already taken a similar step forward by announcing a stop to nuclear testing and missile launches, and promising not to give nuclear missile technologies or weapons to other countries or organizations. He could have done this at the summit, but then the opposing side could have attributed his decision to exerted pressure or persuasion but as things stand, this is a gesture born of free will and a subtle hint at reciprocity in turn.

Besides, if North Koreans have indeed completed (or consider as finished) their work on their nuclear weapons program, then there is no need for further nuclear testing, and any political maneuvers are meaningless. Furthermore, if this freeze on nuclear testing continues for some time (at least a year), then, in theory, it is possible to consider partially lifting sanctions on North Korea. Russia and China could offer to forego the more painful restrictions by pointing out that the moratorium on nuclear testing illustrates a turn for the better and it is worth rewarding Pyongyang.

Aside from this, Pyongyang can certainly tone down the harshness of its propaganda machine. After all, DPRK’s media called the US, America and not American imperialists when signing agreements during Carter’s tenure or during the visit to the north by Madeleine Albright.

In addition, North Korea could, in good faith, release 3 US citizens, accused of spying and independent missionary work (rumors about this possibility are already circulating). Considering the fact that there are no active campaigns to free them unlike in the case of the deceased Otto Warmbier, everyone who matters understands that the Americans were imprisoned for a reason but at the same time, releasing them will be a grand gesture. It is worth mentioning that the issue of their return home has been touched upon during the meeting between the heads of DPRK’s and Sweden’s ministries of foreign affairs, Ri Yong-ho and Margot Wallstrom in Stockholm, as well as during the unofficial visit to Pyongyang by Michael Pompeo, the head of the CIA.

Other issues are already part of the negotiations. For instance, exchanging the program of ballistic missiles, or at least, of submarine ballistic missiles is possible. According to several Russian experts, ICBMs, capable of attacking the continental part of the US, are not really essential for nuclear containment. There are too few of them and they are too unreliable, and most importantly, they are pivotal to the issue of security by tempting the opponent to destroy and attack them first. The security of the state is ensured by medium-range ballistic missiles, which guarantee destruction of Japan and South Korea.

Further along, problems are anticipated, especially if the summit will be dedicated to denuclearization. Clearly, the opposing sides can begin negotiations based on the principle that “denuclearization is critical and within reach, and we are not against discussing the details”. Still views diverge in principle, and each side raises the negotiating bar so that it could simply sacrifice something during the diplomatic exchange.

The first main issue is the conditions of denuclearization. In Beijing, as well as during talks with a special South Korean delegation, Kim Jong Un definitively stated that denuclearization involves certain pre-conditions: “We are ready to disarm on condition that Washington stop its unfriendly policy towards Pyongyang referring not only to the presence of South Korean forces on the Korean peninsula and the US perception of DPRK as an outcast.  The US and its allies should also use “correct policies” towards DPRK and guarantee security and continuity of DPRK’s political system thus rendering the issue of nuclear containment null and void.” Ideally, compensation is also desirable.

North Korea shouldn’t be the only country to denuclearize, the whole peninsula should follow suit, the presence of nuclear weapons on ships entering South Korea’s ports should become unacceptable too.

Such an approach was supported by the Soviet Union. That is why nuclear disarmament negotiations took place, but complete denuclearization was just a dream whose realization was hindered by the political climate.

Hence, North Korean demands include at least a partial (or complete according to program-maximum) alleviation of sanctions and normalization of diplomatic relations, supported by either a peace treaty or a document with a promise from the US to not treat North Korea as an enemy. It may be possible to talk about the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, but this is unlikely, and the author will return to this question in a separate article.

Trump, on the other hand, views denuclearization as denuclearization without any pre-conditions. His business strategy being applicable to a situation where any dialogue is viewed as the opposing side’s surrender with the somewhat skewed information from the South Korean side, which announced Pyongyang’s readiness to denuclearize but failed to mention the pre-condition, thus creating the impression that Kim was scared of sanctions, ready to surrender and needed to be squeezed.

The second main issue concerns deadlines and conditions. According to the South Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, Trump has suggested disarming within half a year or a year, maximum two. All this with the view to resolve this problem by the end of his presidential term and then use this as a trump in his re-election campaign. Besides, denuclearization should be complete, verifiable and irreversible, and include terminating the program to enrich uranium otherwise the sanctions will remain in place. If Kim can not be that quick, plan B is the alternative.

As far as missiles are concerned, program-maximum involves persuading DPRK to not only abandon its ICBMs but also its short- and medium- range missiles, which are threats to Japan and South Korea.

North Koreans, in the meantime, should be satisfied by the fact that “the south started talking to them”. This is a crucial distinction, as for us, these are negotiations, but, according to US public opinion, the idea of a possible summit is a major concession, which can only be justified by a near or complete capitulation.

Basically, DPRK faces the Lebanese option, where dismantling the nuclear program is preceded by compensation measures, although it should be noted that the dismantlement and the lifting of sanctions did not happen simultaneously in Lebanon.

What rewards await DPRK in the case of disarmament? South Korea’s media have announced that the US may open an embassy in DPRK and offer the North humanitarian aid. The Japanese newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, quoting a source in Washington, has mentioned alleviating certain sanctions, reducing the scope of military exercises, establishing a channel of communication between the US and DPRK, and increasing humanitarian aid.

North Korea’s position supports a step-by-step denuclearization analogous to the models, which served as a foundation for the 1994 framework agreement or for the agenda of the six-party negotiations from 2005 to 2008. This was also stated by a representative of a North Korean foreign affairs body, who accompanied the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ri Yong-ho, at the Conference of the Non-aligned Movement held in Baku on April 5th-6th.

This makes the process longer, and most importantly involves reciprocal steps taken by the US in the form of lifting/alleviating sanctions, economic aid or other concessions in response to any steps towards denuclearization made by North Korea. When the inherent distrust between the opposing sides is taken into account, such a denuclearization of the North may not just take years, but decades. Even from the point of view of South Korean experts, one year for complete denuclearization is wishful thinking, while a longer process starts to compete with Trump’s presidential term, if Donald Trump leaves office in 2020, it will enable North Koreans to buy time and then continue negotiations with Trump’s successor.

As of now, we know that, according to The Wall Street Journal, Kim Jong Un attempted to nudge the CIA Director Michael Pompeo towards signing a step-by-step agreement involving concessions from both sides during a meeting at the beginning of April, in Pyongyang. When Kim announced the moratorium on April 21th, he did not mention complete nuclear weapon disarmament. Supporting the need for complete denuclearization does not mean complete readiness to disarm here and now.

However, Trump and his negotiators, such as Pompeo, constantly affirm that unlike everyone else who dealt with this problem earlier, they have studied the history of these negotiations and will not be fooled. Despite the fact that the author has dedicated abundant materials, made for HBO, to criticism of this stance, a significant number of American conservatives are sure that the approach, favored by the previous US administrations from Bill Clinton to Barrack Obama, resulted in DPRK outplaying the US for 25 years thus buying time and gathering strength. The presumption of guilt and DPRK’s reputation as an outcast have both created a very specific world view that involves, most importantly, suppressing any and every opportunity for deception.

Hence, DPRK leader’s words about the moratorium were greeted without enthusiasm by the US President’s circle. From their point of view, Kim Jong Un creates an impression of being a reasonable politician, who is ready for compromise, while in reality, the North Korean leader is enticing the US into a trap, and thinks that in exchange for this concession, he will compel Washington to meet his demands.

What is more, the issue of verification and guarantees, as experience shows, remains a problem. The issue of verification hits a wall of distrust between the two sides and raises questions such as who will be responsible for checking that North Koreans actually dismantled and disassembled everything they were meant to instead of hiding or building a parallel structure, which they can again dismantle for an additional cost. North Korea does not trust the UN or IAEA while the option of using Russian or Chinese experts may not be agreeable to the US.

The same is true for any security guarantees that the US can offer DPRK. These guarantees need to be forged from steel, as stated by Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia after negotiations with his counter-part from DPRK.

Unfortunately, the times when agreements were worth the paper they were printed on are behind us. At the moment, there are no means to force the US to honor its commitments. Besides, any agreements reached at the summit need to be ratified by US Congress, which means that North Koreans may have to fulfill any obligations stemming from the framework agreement, while failure of US Congress to ratify this agreement may give US a legal right not to honor its commitments.

It should be noted that North Koreans have already encountered situations where the political direction in the US changed and anything signed by the previous president seized to matter. How can anyone insure themselves against this? US missile strikes against Syria showed its allies that America may behave in an unpredictable and irrational manner.

Evidently, even a favorable atmosphere at the summit may not make it productive. The author hopes that the summit will be followed by a thaw and not further escalation, and once the negotiating sides have fully grasped that no one wishes to come to an agreement, they can return to plan B without any guilt. The author feels conflicted between his mind and heart, skepticism and hope, the lamentable state of the new world order and the hope that the Korean peninsula does not become a warzone.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

Please select digest to download: