Korea: Breakthrough or Setback?

With the news of a second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un being scheduled for later this month, opinions on the pros and cons quickly followed.

The main concern is that the outcome of the Singapore summit was more sound and smoke than substance, and that the North Koreans got more out it than the Americans — international recognition in return for little more than the usual ambiguities about dismantling the nuclear weapons program.

A reprise of that could mean all the talk of a breakthrough on the peninsula was illusory, and the high expectations for denuclearization will have to be put away for another time, when hopes can be realigned with reality.

Nor is this the arcane knowledge vouchsafed solely to Korea experts in think-tanks and university seminars. The White House is certainly aware that more of the same, without substantive change in the status quo, could translate into an historic setback.

To avert that, delegates from both sides have already begun meeting to prepare for the next round, presumably to draft the script for the two leaders that will ensure progress both can live with.

U.S. Special Representative Steve Biegun indicated that such was the case in remarks at Stanford a few days ago, in which he set forth several points that offer considerable reason to be hopeful:

First, he disclosed that Kim Jong-un committed to Secretary Pompeo in private that North Korea would dismantle all its plutonium and uranium facilities, not just the Yongbyon facility as stipulated in the September Pyongyang Declaration, provided the United States will reciprocate with concrete actions of its own.

The Trump administration, for its part, undertook to pursue negotiations on denuclearization and peace on parallel tracks, a significant departure from the demand that Pyongyang commence denuclearization prior to peace negotiations. Furthermore, Biegun indicated that the United States would be willing to agree to initial sanctions relief measures, and will not insist on full denuclearization beforehand.

But as flexible as the United States is willing to be, Biegun also stressed that U.S. troop reductions are not up for discussion, and will not be an option as a tradeoff for denuclearization.

The followup summit is based on more than wishful thinking. Good behavior on the part of the North Koreans (at least, what qualifies as good behavior for them) helps to justify confidence that additional high-level meetings will not be for nought.

As President Trump has pointed out, through 2018 following the Singapore summit, North Korea has refrained from nuclear tests and from firing long-range missiles. Three American detainees were allowed to return home.

While none of this guarantees denuclearization, and testing can be resumed any time they please, as gestures of good will these appear to suffice.

At the same time, there are signals that no one should count on any fundamental changes in North Korean policy. One signal was a “rare performance” by a troupe of North Korean singers and dancers in Beijing in January, attended by Xi Jinping and his wife. Message: Beijing has not left the stage empty for Washington to play peacemaker.

The Chinese have not been a force for good in the decades of negotiations with North Korea. Chinese companies have been a steady source of components, equipment and materials for the North’s nuclear weapons program, as well as for its ballistic missile efforts.

Given the ongoing economic and military tensions between the United States and China, there is reason to suspect that the latter will go out of its way to ruin hopes for a successful summit, or that it will pressure Kim Jong-un to exact an exorbitant price for any concessions.

Hopes for a great deal that will bring a nuclear-free peace to Korea seem to be slim. As Asia expert Stephan Haggard, distinguished professor of political science at UC San Diego, put it recently:

“I don’t think I know a single North Korea watcher who believes that the prospects of complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear-industrial complex are good.”

But, as he goes on to say, that is no reason not to proceed with a second summit, and “the need to put in place a robust negotiating process that could make progress on some interim steps.”

An important interim step would be an agreement to ease sanctions in return for North Korea abandoning its long-range missile program. However, as has been suggested by Bae Myung-Bok, an editor and columnist in Seoul, that should be accompanied by a joint declaration that FFVD (Final, Fully Verified Denuclearization) is “the final goal, and clarify the timetable and roadmap for its implementation.”

Having said that, the bottom line would have to be, in the words of Robert L. Gallucci, chief U.S. negotiator during the Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, meeting the standard of the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.

“For us that means that our guy will at least have to avoid concessions that would thrill the North, but scare the South,” writes Gallucci in a comment in The National Interest.

There’s a useful rule of thumb: Keep in mind, your allies are watching.