North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s statements in recent days, replete with frustration and scolding of Washington’s negotiating posture, indicate that President Donald Trump thus far has struck the right balance.
In his April 11 speech to his rubber-stamp legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim said that he is only interested in meeting Trump for a third summit if Washington approaches talks with the “right attitude,” adding that he would wait until the end of 2019 for Washington to be more flexible and proclaimed that “it is essential for the US to quit its current calculation method and approach us with a new one.”
He also accused Washington of pursuing “impracticable” ways at the February Hanoi summit and that such an approach would “never be able to move the DPRK even a knuckle, nor gain any interests …”
These rants point to Kim’s dashed expectations from Hanoi, indicating surprise and disappointment from a failure to exact concessions from Washington as his father did with past US administrations. This after his symbolic gestures of destroying missile and nuclear test sites as well as returning US war remains in 2018.
Kim’s April 11 comments also show how the sudden end to the Hanoi summit amounted to a personal loss of face, forcing him to return to Pyongyang empty-handed and without sanctions relief.
By most counts, chances of an agreement with Pyongyang on denuclearization are poor due in part to the high asks coming out of Pyongyang. Thus far, Kim has been intractable with his demands on the lifting of economic sanctions prior to his regime taking concrete and verifiable denuclearization measures.
He has also reportedly demanded the withdrawal of US strategic military assets in Guam and Hawaii.
Complicating matters, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has staked his political career on making peace with North Korea, has also requested an easing of US sanctions against Pyongyang.
In his April 12 meeting with Moon at the White House, President Trump reiterated what he told Kim in Hanoi, namely, that current sanctions in place are sufficient and ought to be kept in place.
All signs indicate that, rightly so, President Trump is maintaining his position that Kim’s offer in Hanoi of partially dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for Washington easing its most stringent sanctions amounts to a bad deal for the United States.
Meanwhile, it appears as if Kim finds himself on new ground, unaccustomed to being told “no.”
As it stands thus far, the President hasn’t acquiesced on many of the demands typically coming from Pyongyang’s playbook in recent decades, i.e., calls for the US to withdraw its Asia Pacific-deployed forces, ending the Korean War, de-listing North Korea as a state sponsor or terrorism, unfreezing North Korean assets, endorsing inter-Korean commercial and development projects, establishing diplomatic relations and lifting economic sanctions.
The one exception has been President Trump agreeing to end two yearly large-scale US-South Korea joint military exercises, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, in place of smaller-scale joint exercises.
While toeing a hard line, President Trump has been cordial and patient toward Kim in his public statements. He has expressed an openness to a third summit at an appropriate time, stating his belief in North Korea’s “tremendous potential” and predicting that the North will become “one of the most successful nations of the World” when “Nuclear Weapons and Sanctions can be removed.”
Any talks with a recalcitrant regime like North Korea will have ups and downs, and there are risks and costs to drawn out diplomacy with the North. Over multiple administrations, Pyongyang has mastered the art of watering down demands from Washington as talks drag on over the course of weeks, months and even years.
Ultimately, if the North and the US are unable to come to agreeable terms for denuclearization, Trump must be willing to settle for a sustained policy of sanctions, containment and deterrence with overwhelming capabilities, all while leaving the door open for talks.
Yet, President Trump appears cognizant of this and on guard for the strategic deception commonly engaged by the Kim dynasty during negotiations.
His saying no to Kim’s excessive demands in Hanoi, maintaining respectful ties via congenial tweets and keeping the “maximum pressure” campaign in place appears to confound, flatter and frustrate the Chairman. It also positions Trump well. Trump’s balanced approach puts him in the driver’s seat of the talks, allowing him to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula from a position of greater strength.
Ted Gover, PhD., writes on US-Asian relations and foreign policy, and he is the director of the tribal administration program at Claremont Graduate University. -- Ed.