Quick Thoughts on Korea

It’s wild, it’s crazy, it just might work?

I’m not going to pretend as if I have supreme confidence in the negotiating skills of President Deals, but one of the vanishingly rare points of optimism with this administration all along has been, perhaps, the chance for some faits accomplis to be revisited, for some of the baggage of old to be revisited. Not in the sense of blowing up the international order, but in rethinking some of the assumptions that have persisted in the postwar and post-Cold War era, for better or worse. I’ll avoid dignifying either of the present regimes with the title of “Muhammad” or “mountain,” but regardless, the twain shall meet.

Well, this is one of those moments. No sitting president has ever met with a North Korean head of state (Carter and Clinton did so, but in their post-presidencies). Donald Trump is perhaps not the most likely of candidates to send on such a vital mission, but you go to negotiations with the one you’ve got, particularly if he insists.

But that aside, an in-person summit represents a real opportunity to shed some of that baggage and to rethink our relationship with the Koreas and the region for decades to come. Kim is likely unserious about denuclearization – at least, that would be my own prior heading into a negotiation like this – and we’ve been equally adamant about not halting our exercise regime nor abandoning our alliance with South Korea. If we can accept these constraints, however, the room to maneuver is significant, and at the very least might lead to confidence building measures.

As Victor Cha ominously concludes in a New York Times opinion piece, this is certainly not a move without significant risk.

Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have “run out of road” on North Korea.

Given that these negotiations would be taking place at the highest levels of government, it is hard to say what comes after a failed session. Is that it?

Of course, this all concedes the idea that talks would even be productive. Cha also suggests, rightfully, that the Trump administration is probably singularly susceptible to flattery and deception on the part of North Korea. He asks what might we be willing to give up, and suggests the possibility of radical change:

A second path might be bolder, and for this reason it might be more appealing to Mr. Trump. This would put much bigger carrots on the table, including diplomatic normalization of relations and even the conclusion of a peace treaty ending the Korean War in return for denuclearization. It would be ironic if Mr. Trump, an avowed hawk on North Korea, adopted this “big bang” approach to diplomacy advocated for years by doves.

But, he says, “the unanswered question going forward is what the United States is willing to put on the table for a negotiation.” This is an open question, not in the least because Rex Tillerson will be replaced by Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, and who will presumably be playing a large role in any upcoming negotations. Pompeo is a man who, as recently as this past Sunday, “said on Fox News that the United States would offer not a single concession in negotiations with Pyongyang. ‘Make no mistake about it,’ he said.” This could very well mean that negotiations are dead on arrival. But Pompeo still has to be confirmed, and Tillerson’s lingering until 31 March, so who know what might change in that time.

Meanwhile, Jeff Lewis thinks that Trump and Kim have goals for these talks that are fundamentally at odds.

Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.

And of course, as he and I would agree, Lewis goes on to say that this would be a bad idea (so let’s call this a better-case scenario). But, he adds, what if that isn’t what Trump does? “What if Trump, having deluded himself into thinking he’s going to pick up Kim Jong Un’s bombs, suddenly decides that he’s been double-crossed? He could use the summit outcome to discredit diplomacy and open the pathway toward war.”

As Lewis and Cha agree, this meeting has an immense downside: it might foreclose on any possibility of avoiding a senseless war on the Korean Peninsula. But at the same time, the steady drumbeat coming from EEOB seems likely to march us in that direction anyways, and so the possibility of a real, dramatic diplomatic breakthrough must be seized upon and prepared for. The possibilities are tremendous, as are the risks.

As John Bolton’s stock rises, and his presence in the West Wing looms ever more likely, it’s more important than ever that we refresh our ways of thinking and what constitutes a “desired outcome.” Before it’s too late.

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