Is Trump set to give away the store in Korea?
US President could be taking a cynical shortcut to North Korean denuclearization that would give him a short-term victory
“What if Trump is cynical enough to be on the verge of accepting a fake denuclearization to help Republicans in the midterms, make a renewed push for the Nobel Peace Prize, and ensure Trump 2020?”
An American friend working in the financial services industry in Tokyo asked me that question in an email under the heading, “Just had a chilling thought,” which he sent late last week as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was heading for Pyongyang for the fourth time.
My thoughts in response could be summarized in two words: “’Fraid so.” And what we have heard, up to the time of writing, about the results of the latest Pompeo visit gives me no concrete reason to hope for a better outcome.
While this year’s Nobel has just been awarded to someone else, the competition for 2019 remains wide open. The scheme my friend imagines is along the lines of what I have long suspected Trump of being up to – abetted by Kim Jong Un and his henchmen, and by the South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in.
But to be fair in presenting a highly pessimistic analysis of where the Trump-Kim-Moon talks are most likely headed, I’ll give due attention to the optimists’ case.
Optimists need, first and foremost, to see a probability that the Kim family regime has changed its stripes drastically.
That regime is a top-down system of one-man rule enabled by a largely hereditary class of elite loyalists in the military, security services and other government and party units. If the single truly important man has decided on a drastic change, why would he have done that?
Some – notably the never self-effacing Trump himself – would argue that the American president’s policy of “maximum pressure” forced Kim’s hand.
Severe sanctions, if left in place longer, eventually might have come close to overwhelming the regime – but I don’t believe that had happened by the time Kim started making nice. The intensified sanctions were just starting to pinch. In a country that had survived far worse, Kim need not have felt he was at the point of desperation.
Now, of course, defections by China, Russia and others in response to the “peace and denuclearization” initiative have effectively removed the adjective “maximum” from the pressure that Washington applies.
What might appear to be a stronger argument is that the resilience of China’s single-party rule convinced Kim he could keep political control even while encouraging the development of a market economy.
His father and grandfather had feared the rise of a middle class that might get in touch with the outside world and see the Kim regime’s cruelty and incompetence clearly. To prevent that they maintained a regimented economy, closed to the outside. The argument now is that China’s current president, Xi Jinping, set an example that persuaded young Kim to switch.
Nice try but no cigar. Deng Xiaoping started transforming China four decades ago, and ever since then outside analysts have been saying that the Kims could not avoid seeing the advantages that would flow from following Deng’s lead. The analysts said that especially at times of generational change in the North – after the first Kim died, in 1994; and then the second, in 2011.
But Kim Jong Il exercised sole power for 17 years and didn’t reform or open his economy. Kim Jong Un has been in power for seven years and his supposed gestures toward reform are modest indeed. They probably could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Die-hard engagers suggest that Kim Jong Un privately wanted to reform and open but had to wait until he possessed a nuclear deterrent so he’d be secure from American attack. What I think is that if he’d stopped threatening other countries and gone to work transforming his own we all would have applauded, not attacked. (But the very claim that he needs a nuclear deterrent before he can reform and open is an indication that he doesn’t intend to give up his nukes.)
Oh, the engagers say, but Kim Jong Un understands that he can’t keep the people’s affection – during a lifetime that could last for another half century or so – without doing a Deng on the economy.
Engagers used to say similar things about the father and the grandfather, too, but those two never moved very far beyond state-centered economic thinking and, judging from all the evidence I’ve seen, neither has Kim Jong Un.
When the youngest Kim leaves his office for on-the-spot guidance inspection tours, the work units he visits are state-owned. Propaganda still emphasizes the need to build up the state sector. Tourists, last I checked, were still not being shown the privately run stalls in relatively free markets that are credited for having saved the people from even worse disaster when the centrally planned economy collapsed in the famine of the mid-1990s.
Kim’s public transformation into a cuddly peacenik was timed to take fullest advantage of the combination of (a.) Trump’s rise to power following his campaign plugs for US troop withdrawal and (b.) the subsequent election in South Korea of a leftist president, Moon, who had been part of the soft-headed youth movement of the 1980s with its romantic view of North Korea’s ideology and leaders.
Those factors are also the reason for serious pessimism about the prospects that we’re going to see denuclearization in North Korea – and about the chances that any peace agreement that is reached will be more positive than ominous. With Trump and Moon in power we have the ingredients for a perfect storm.
Remember Jimmy Carter, who entered the White House in 1977 on a pledge to remove American troops from South Korea, and who did his level best to make good on that pledge against strenuous opposition by his aides, who ultimately thwarted him?
The North Korean regime certainly remembers Carter, very fondly – and has been waiting and waiting for another like him. Trump fills the bill perfectly and has set to work vindicating the Kims’ strategic patience.
The North Korean who was in charge of external policy back then is still around, as titular head of state, and he’s been deeply involved in this year’s moves. His name is Kim Yong Nam – no close blood relationship. Kim Yong Nam sat me down in a Pyongyang guesthouse for five hours in 1979 and explained, for readers of the Baltimore Sun, why Carter’s dream should be the dream of all Americans.
When I see old (90) Kim Yong Nam, still frisky and in the thick of things in the current back and forth between North and South, I find it hard to believe that Kim Jong Un has radically altered policy. Revolutions usually involve big personnel changes. I see no revolution here.
Nevertheless, in Washington and Seoul, engagers (there have always been engagers; I myself have been there, done that) insist that things really have changed. Young ruler Kim Jong Un is not his father or his grandfather, they say. Could’ve fooled me. He’s duded up to look just like his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. He has his subjects worship him, just as they worshipped and still worship the previous two Kims.
If policies and personnel don’t change much, likewise unchanged as far as I can tell are the regime’s overriding (if very rarely acknowledged publicly) goals: a peace treaty, American troop withdrawal, sharing of authority in a North-South confederation and then a Northern takeover of the South.
Dealing with the Americans this time should be easier than it was during the Carter administration. Aides to the current commander in chief will find it much harder to head off reckless moves, because Trump is a meaner hombre. When anonymous White House officials recently revealed that they’d been deep-stating the president on North Korea policy, just as Carter’s underlings had done, Trump was furious. He’ll be on the alert to make sure they don’t do it again.
That’s just what the North Koreans have been working toward, telling Trump that his subordinates are screwing up his plans and that only he is smart enough to negotiate peace and to “denuclearize” (a term that means something vastly different to them from what the Americans mean by it).
The friend who emailed me figured that Trump had reasoned as follows: “If you convince Kim Jong Un that he will be rich and famous (and not ripped apart alive like Ceaușescu or executed after hiding in a sewer like Gaddafi), then he may agree to ‘peace.’ Trump already has no respect for the old world order, so why preserve North Korea’s pariah status?”
Ah! Peace! Bypassing his own deep-state aides, Trump recently assigned Moon to negotiate with the North on behalf of the United States. What did Moon say? “My goal is to make so much progress on de-nuking and establishing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula that by the year-end, any reversal becomes impossible.”
And what is the “peace regime”? Don’t bother to check your usual news sources since most media organizations don’t seem to get this. The peace regime is the North-South confederation that North Korea has called for repeatedly over the decades. Moon seems to believe that the South can join such a confederation and avoid being dominated by the North. After all, the South’s population is twice as big and its economy vastly larger. Southerners – complacently – tell themselves they won’t be vulnerable.
But how long will the third in the royal line of Kim absolute monarchs, cunning, brutal and accustomed to being worshipped and obeyed by everyone he meets, tolerate sharing power with Southern presidents who are mere commoners, brought to prominence through a messy democratic process?
If you’re still in your thirties, able to look forward to several decades in office, how hard will it be to outmaneuver Southerners who are term-limited to five years before they begin the now-traditional post-presidential journey to prison?
Add this concern: If push comes to shove, will young South Koreans fight to the death to keep from being dominated – enslaved – in a Kim-ruled unified Korea? I’m far from alone in doubting that enough of them would. And if the scenario plays out the way I fear, blood and treasure that generations of Americans have contributed to the development and survival of a free society built on principles similar to our own will have gone for naught.
What sort of advice is Trump getting? Recently he appointed a “point man” for North Korea and an ambassador to South Korea. Neither of them is a Korea specialist. North Koreans know a lot about the Americans, thanks to the lack of term limits on the Kims’ rule and thanks to cadres’ single-minded study of and concentration on us over decades.
Does Trump know that none of the other major players – Kim, Moon, Xi – places first priority on protecting South Korea’s vulnerable democracy, leaving the American president to decide for himself whether or not to shoulder the role of the responsible member of an alliance?
Whether he’s consciously aware of that or not – or, as one critic suggests, he simply doesn’t understand geopolitics – I doubt he cares. His character, known (unfavorably for the most part) around the world by now, is the giveaway.
As my friend speculated about the president, “Basically he would take whatever looks good enough superficially to claim a win and get out. Doesn’t care about the balance of power, protection of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, doesn’t care about the longer-term effects of China-baiting, and has just decided that to be able to claim to have ended the Korean War will be enough.”
Once Kim Jong Un “makes a few concessions,” my friend forecasts, “some ‘concrete steps toward reunification’ of the Koreas” will be announced. From that point, “the Kim dynasty continues happily along, and no one is the wiser… Alfred E. Neuman running the world – ‘What, me worry?’”
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Veteran Asia correspondent and Pyongyang watcher Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (a history) and of a new North Korea-set novel, Nuclear Blues.