North Korea Summit Fallout
–By Morgan Deane
The summit unexpectedly ended in the middle of last week. Donald Trump held a fairly restrained conference and admitted that sometimes you have to walk away. This ended the summit a little more than a day after it began, but it will remain important for years to come for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, the severe economic sanctions that have been in place since the early years of the George W. Bush administration remain in place. The original sanctions were supposed to produce enough pain that the regime would stop its program and come to the bargaining table.
Since the Bush sanctions, the North Korean regime has continued its march towards nuclear weapons and its missile tests. And, obviously after a summit like this, stopping the program is no longer a precondition for negotiations.
The exact details are somewhat disputed. But a major point included in the negotiations was having the sanctions removed or lessened. North Korea argues they would have frozen the research at the Yongbyon site in exchange for a partial loosening of sanctions. While those sanctions haven’t incentivized them to shut down the program, they are still painful. The average citizen in North Korea is both poor and malnourished, some analysts say they are even starving, and even Chairmen Kim can’t live as luxuriously as he would like with sanctions on key goods.
China remains their greatest trading partner, but the United States is cracking down on Chinese and Russian smugglers that are transporting oil and other goods into the country, which are making the sanctions even more effective in North Korea and increasingly painful for those that previously gave it lip service. China, for example, would often agree with sanctions in the UN, and then hardly enforce them.
The other key point besides sanctions was the gradual decommissioning of their nuclear program. North Korea has promised significant freezes in the program, particularly around the key Yongbyon nuclear reactor. But this didn’t satisfy the United States. The deal under Bill Clinton shut down that site, but it was rather inexpensive and relatively easy for them to reactivate it during the Bush administration. The history of reactivating this site is probably why the United States wasn’t ready to accept that concession as meaningful enough to at least partially loosen the sanctions.
The end result is that the summit created little change. But that may not be a bad thing. The biggest negative was that human rights were largely left out of the negotiations with the Kim regime. There was little discussion of improving the plight of the people and stopping the excessively controlling police state that terrorizes its own people.
What is next?
One of the biggest concerns that conservatives had with items like the Iran deal, is that President Obama was so desperate for any deal that he got a really bad deal. Some of the establishment elites were worried that something similar would happen at this summit. At the same time, and on a split screen with his former lawyer calling him a racist, lying, conman, Trump might have had even more reason to steal the spotlight on his amazing presidential deal with North Korea. Instead, he walked away with no deal.
Most analysts reported this through the prism of their politics. NBC journalists for example scoffed at his ability as a deal maker, referenced the shutdown and Republican losses in the midterm elections before mentioning the Michael Cohen accusations. They claim he sacrificed prestige, time and energy, for nothing reached or achieved.
Jonah Goldberg on the conservative side recalled Jeb Bush’s attacks on Trump as the chaos candidate and recalled a hypothetical scenario given during the election. He said that this summit in the middle of his domestic scandal was a good representation of the kind of chaos that conservatives thought would happen. Goldberg also said that Trump resisted the temptation to score a political win that would have resulted in some good press, but a bad deal for America and world peace.
Those are hardly ringing endorsements but I think they are missing several more important factors. Walking away is a bold move that shows he isn’t desperate for a deal at any costs. It raises his leverage and recalls incidents such as Reagan’s negotiations with the Soviets in Iceland. That summit ended without any deal, but it let both sides feel each other out, and the productive discussion led to further summits which did produce a breakthrough. (One of the treaties from those talks is in the news recently as the US withdrew due to Russian violations of the INF treaty.)
Moreover, Trump moved from talks with North Korea, right back into talks with China. In fact, the day after the summit failed Trump delayed a planned increase in tariffs against China. Without getting into a long discussion of complex trade issues, Trump so far has used tariffs to try and change Chinese trade practices. Trump says their trade practices are unfair and seeks what he says is a level playing field. The effects are still being determined, but a Chinese economic slowdown suggests that the tariffs are moving the needle.
Walking away from the negotiations with North Korea, when he could have used a foreign policy “win” in a time of domestic scandal, strengthens his hand with China. It is normally assumed that the Communist dictatorship can afford to ignore the will of the people and pursue a trade war. But Trump has shown some backbone and that he can also assert his will even if he is facing pressure from analysts, the establishment, and voters at home. In short, he can say that he is fighting for the people, and the US is willing to stick with their tariffs, and suffer retaliatory tariffs because they aren’t being treated fairly. He could threaten to walk away from talks with the North Korea summit fresh in their minds. Despite the criticism he received from analysts and pundits in this case, sometimes driving a hard bargain means you don’t get an immediate deal.
Outcome at a personal level for President Trump and Chairman Kim.
Trump’s good personal relationship with Kim suggests this is not the end of the story. After the first summit, he and Kim have exchanged letters in what some call is a bromance. The body language at the conference was rather warm according to analysts, and the leaders had good things to say about the other leaders.
His good personal relationship with Kim led to what is probably the biggest post conference controversy. In discussing human rights abuses by the North Korean government the topic turned to Otto Warmbier. This was an American student that was imprisoned on trumped up charges and abused to the point that he was severely disabled and died a short time after returning to the US. Trump, probably relying on his personal relationship with Kim said that he trusted that the North Korean leader “didn’t know” about Otto’s abuse and torture. But Kim is the head of a rather brutal regime with a high degree of control over its people and an oppressive state apparatus, which has led many pundits and analysts, as well as Warmbier’s parents to disagree with Trump. This controversy reinforces the sad human rights record of North Korea and how the summit didn’t address those issues.
All of the key issues will drive further discussion and remain hard to solve. Sanctions are designed to be slow acting, long term stick, and the removal of them are a good carrot. The spread of nuclear weapons to rogue regimes in what one President called the Axis of Evil is unacceptable. At the same time, North Korea remains fairly resistant to a first strike due to their ability at a deadly counterstrike with conventional weapons. All the key issues remain which means that we will likely read much more about the dangerous and unsatisfactory status quo, and about the difficulty of resolving the situation. But Trump has shown that he is willing to keep sanctions, and he doesn’t need a deal so badly that he will sign anything, and that he is prepared to walk away from bad deals.
Reflecting on key lessons from a larger and historical perspective, the recent summit suggests the danger in letting problems fester. President Bill Clinton’s potential strike on the Yongbyon nuclear reactor would probably have been much more successful at stopping the North Korean program before they had 25 years to harden, hide, or fortify key equipment like artillery that can rain death on Seoul within an hour. Sanctions might have been more effective had they been more comprehensive from President Bush and implemented by all of their neighbors. They missile technology would be far less capable had President Obama (or previous presidents) had taken more action during his eight years. So the failure of this summit reflects as much on the last 30 years of failing to stop North Korea, as it does with Trump’s negotiating skills and domestic scandals.