MACK WILLIAMS. North Korea: What now?”

President Trump’s positive response to Kim Jong-un’s invitation to direct talks naturally has created a swirl of media commentary and speculation.  It has served Trump’s interest to promote a sense of surprise though it probably also reflects a considerable amount of activity by a number of stakeholders in recent months.  Given the DPRK’s track record in earlier negotiating efforts and the seemingly dysfunctional White House, it is hard to be more than cautious about where it might lead.

The reaction to President Trump’s acceptance of Kim Jong-un’s invitation to a Summit for the most part is cautiously positive. His decision has also provided a valuable insight into the idiosyncratic way Trump manages his administration.

Much has been made of the surprise element, both in Kim’s invitation and Trump’s very quick acceptance.  Though it has been much longer in the making than outwardly it would seem – and Trump would have us believe.  There is now a myriad of details which will need to be resolved before any actual Summit.

In the past North Korea has shown plenty of form in exploiting these.

In hindsight, the absence of any DPRK missile or nuclear tests since late last year after the almost frenetic pace earlier in the year,  could well have been an indication of the  changing position by the North which it now claims.  China and Russia, no doubt, will have represented to the US this absence of testing along with their strong urging that it be met by a deferral of the annual  joint US:ROK military exercise.  Kim’s decision to participate in the Winter Olympics in the South followed this up.

Almost serendipitously, the Winter Olympics presented an opportunity for Trump to defer the joint exercise as a goodwill gesture to the Olympic spirit.  The dates for the annual exercise and the Games  had long been scheduled  and must have been on the radar of policy planners in both Koreas and the US.  But it provided sufficient cover for Trump to argue that it did not amount to the US agreeing to a pre-condition for direct talks with the North which the Russians and Chinese had been promoting.  It also provided immediate stakeholders the chance to explore ways for direct secret contacts around the Games.

Whether it was  part of  the now regular “good cop:bad cop” tactic employed by Trump or not it was notable that the US went to extraordinary lengths to confuse the scene. Vice-President Pence talked tough about new sanctions and went out of his way to reply to any propaganda advantage that might accrue to the North by acting rudely and pulling out of President Moon’s lunch for him and Kim’s sister. In the event, President Moon’s long lunch with Kim’s sister has been credited by some  with having played an important role by allowing Moon to seek to persuade her of the opportunity for direct talks which had emerged.  Trump’s daughter attended the Closing Ceremony but, although she had been briefed to do so, did not meet with the very senior DPRK National Security official who was also in attendance.  However, the media have reported that the Senior National Security Officer in her delegation had met secretly with her DPRK counterpart.

The subsequent quick visit to Pyongyang by the ROK senior delegation added considerable momentum to the public sense of a glimmer of hope in what had previously been (and still is) such a daunting situation.  That Moon decided to send the delegation off quickly to Washington to convey a personal message to Trump from him added to the speculation.  It is clear that Moon was aware of the Summit invitation from Kim to Trump and this certainly would have been conveyed to Washington well in advance of the ROK delegation’s visit.  This allowed Trump  time to consider a response.

The Washington media is now undertaking  an ex post facto view of the way the Trump machine works – or does not work.  They have reported extensively the extremely cautious reaction most of Trump’s close-in advisors took on the invitation.  Trump has sought to  play up the fact that this was his own personal decision and even present it as some sort of a whim.  That he had to brief Secretary of State Tillerson about the invitation but reportedly not advise him in advance of his decision speaks much of that relationship.  That he also dramatized the ROK’s delegation to him by plucking them out of a preparatory meeting with National Security Director McMaster (one of those urging caution) and straight into the Oval Office does likewise. As did his request that it be the ROK delegation that announce his acceptance of the Kim invitation – in a statement jointly drafted by the delegation and McMaster!

Inevitably, there has been a wealth of comment about who can take the credit for this apparent breakthrough.  Objectively there are a number of winners but no obvious losers:

  • clearly Trump has confirmed that he is a deal-maker not bound by conventional negotiating strategy.  As Paul Keating has commented, that Trump deserves much of the credit  – but by no means all.
  • Kim Jong-un has also proved to be no amateur in these stakes and certainly cannot be painted as a loser as he now has the opportunity for direct talks which the US has repeatedly denied him through its pre-conditions
  • Moon has played a gutsy role being on a knife’s edge all the way – drawing on his own experience of an earlier inter-Korean summit when he was Chief of Staff to former President Roh.
  • the Chinese have also been a major contributor through their sensitive lobbying of Kim and their recent firmer commitment to sanctions busting. All of which Trump has repeatedly acknowledged  in often adulatory terms.  Despite the many naysayers in this is also why Trump has to come to consider the South China Sea as much less of a priority than Korea.
  • the Russians have also been active in getting the situation to this stage.  It could well have been a factor in Trump’s apparent ceding of so much ground to Putin in Syria.

The real question now is where to from here?  Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in this episode has been the absence of leaks from Washington.  In all the post mortems now being conducted it is still difficult to fathom how such an obviously dysfunctional White House with a seriously depleted State Department has been able to manage the negotiating strategy which has got us to this point.  Despite Trump’s self-promotion there are too many elements at work for it all to have been done single-handedly by him.  Of course, the more he takes the credit the more he risks the damage if the Summit does not go ahead or fails.

Maintaining the momentum towards the Summit will be extraordinarily difficult.  There are already some signs of White House confusion about managing the preparations.  More than ever this is a time when words become extremely critical.  Will the White House be able to maintain a tightly drafted script throughout this process remains far from certain.  This has already been displayed by loose wording from the White House Press Spokeswoman about “concrete” steps which the DPRK must take before a Summit can occur which immediately led to speculation about a further set of pre-conditions for the Summit.  Trump was quick to squelch this by Twitter but it is indicative of how careful this must be managed.  Any attempt to portray Kim as a loser (for example, as having been forced to take the initiative) will open up fertile ground for mischief and worse by the DPRK.

Looking further ahead, beyond a successful Summit (which is probably precarious to do at this stage) the list of challenges is extremely daunting.  These include:

  • the Moon:Kim summit and keeping the ROK in the loop. This will become a very sensitive domestic issue (especially if Trump maintains the tariff on steel  for which the ROK is a leading source of US imports);
  • Japan, also, has an enormous stake in the outcome as do, obviously, China and Russia.

In the lead up to the Summit among the key issues will be:

  • setting the venue and the date where symbolism and face will be extremely important;
  • maintaining the sanctions pressure until the Summit, or some “concrete”, changes are observed;
  • US insistence that the Joint US-ROK exercise be completed before the Summit- currently  planned to commence in late March but usually last several weeks.  Reports that the ROK might like to see the scale of the joint exercise wound back as something of a sweetener for the two sets of Summits – such as not including global strategic forces (B1 bombers and nuclear submarines);
  • the beginning of determining what “denuclearization” actually means not only for the DPRK but also for the ROK and US forces in Korea.

Mack Williams is a Former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Royal College of Defence Studies.


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