Beware the Guns of August—in Asia
How to Keep U.S-Chinese Tensions From Sparking a War
On Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly canceled a forthcoming summit with South Korea and threatened to pull out of the June 12 talks with U.S. President Donald Trump, claiming that ongoing U.S.-South Korean drills were a “provocation.” Trump has been no less volatile, tweeting days before that he could still call off the meeting at the very last moment. But what Kim’s move reveals is a broader strategy at work. In the lead-up to the Singapore summit, should it still take place, Trump may be preparing for the wrong game: a two-player round of checkers when Kim is steeling for a multiplayer two-board chess match. On one board will be the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, what Trump came to negotiate. On the other will be what Kim and the other participants know is also crucially at stake: the future of geopolitics in northeast Asia. How can the president ensure a favorable outcome in this complicated chess match?
Trump should take a cue from President Richard Nixon. In preparing for his historic meeting with the Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1972, Nixon made sure he understood how to play the game by thinking about his opponent’s aims. On a piece of paper, he outlined what Mao wanted, laid them out against the goals of the United States, and then mapped out areas of potential agreement. Trump should do the same, thinking strategically about the motivations of all the summit’s key players: North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. So what is it, then, that they really want?
AT THE TABLE
In recent weeks, Kim has expressed his willingness to pursue “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a promise that in the past has meant only that Pyongyang would pledge to eliminate nuclear weapons just as the United States did under Article VI of the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty. This essentially means never denuclearizing. The North has always argued that if the United States expects it to eliminate its arsenal, Washington would first have to end its own “hostile policy”—namely, economic sanctions, criticism of human rights, protection of South Korea and Japan, and whatever else Pyongyang decides it wants to throw into the mix to get concessions.
What North Korea really wants from this summit, in other words, is probably not denuclearization but the opposite—acceptance of its nuclear weapons status. This should not be surprising. In 2012, North Korea revised its constitution to pronounce itself a nuclear power, and Kim declared earlier this year that his intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program was near completion, an indication that he was ready to negotiate. North Korean diplomats have also conceded since at least 2002 that their ultimate goal is to establish an arms control negotiation with the United States as a fellow nuclear weapons state. This is why Kim’s proposals thus far mimic the moves of a nuclear weapons state, such as pledging testing freezes, no first use, and no transfer.
Trump may be preparing for the wrong game: a two-player round of checkers when Kim is steeling for a multiplayer two-board chess match.
The other key item on Kim’s agenda is a relaxation of economic pressure. The Trump administration’s sweeping sanctions played a role in bringing the North Korean leader to the table, but it is also likely that Kim knew he would be sanctioned after he threatened the United States with his Hwasong-15 ICBM test last December. Although North Korea’s ultimate goal is for the United States to end its unilateral sanctions, it’s not an absolute necessity since China is likely to soften its own pressure once the negotiation process is under way—no small gain for Kim given that China accounts for 90 percent of North Korean external trade. Tactically, Kim will look for dramatic gestures and a slow-rolling “action-for-action” approach to negotiations that will drag things out until he is ready to escalate again (a well-established pattern that senior regime defectors like Hwang Jang Yop once predicted will continue into the future).
Trump, however, may take issue with a scenario in which Kim trades away part of his nuclear weapons program, but demands in return a reduction of sanctions and de facto recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons state. As National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both stated, the president will be satisfied only with complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of the North’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. Bolton has said that he expects the Libya model under which Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi turned over all of his missiles and WMD-related programs to the United States within a matter of months. That scenario seems highly unlikely given how massive the North’s weapons program is; how reluctant the North has been to verify anything in past negotiations; and the fact that Qaddafi died at the hands of a mob. A step-by-step process seems technically unavoidable, and yet that is exactly the trap that Pyongyang will want to set to delay real progress.
Kim will probably be counting on Trump to settle for a political agreement that is big on historical aspirations and short on verification and timetables. The president has said he is prepared to walk away from the talks if he is not satisfied, but he has also wallowed in the praise heaped on him by his supporters since the summit was announced. The fine print of CVID might not matter politically if Fox News hails his agreements with Kim as a success. The United States’ allies are also growing nervous that Trump might be tempted to use peace talks as an excuse to withdraw U.S. troops from the peninsula, a rumor he has only tepidly denied.
This is why it is critical that Trump remember he will be playing two games of chess at the same time in these negotiations. China, playing on the adjacent board, will certainly be thinking in broader terms.
THE OTHER GAME
Although Chinese President Xi Jinping will not be at the table with Trump and Kim, he will view the unfolding diplomacy in terms that go well beyond the Korean Peninsula. China, like the United States, wants the North to abandon nuclear weapons, but Beijing is not too fussed about when or how denuclearization happens, as long as the current tensions subside. The more important chess game for Beijing is not denuclearization but strategic competition with the United States. Xi has called for the Asia region to take care of Asian security without foreign “blocs” (meaning U.S. alliances). South Korea has been the biggest target of Chinese pressure of any U.S. ally, manifest in Beijing’s recent multibillion-dollar boycott of South Korean companies to punish Seoul for accepting the deployment of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) systems. China will want incremental denuclearization talks and also peace treaty negotiations that lower tensions; exclude Japan (not a belligerent in the Korean War); and energize opponents of U.S. bases, missile defense deployments, and U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral military cooperation. Beijing can and has brought considerable pressure to bear on North Korea, including to get Kim to the table this time, but Xi’s preference will be to initiate a diplomatic process that anesthetizes U.S. alliances regardless of whether the North Korean threat is actually diminished. Xi will also likely expand economic cooperation with the North to mend frayed ties with Pyongyang.
This is precisely why it would be a calamitous mistake for Trump to propose a premature U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea based on an ill-conceived peace agreement and an unverifiable nuclear accord. Not only would he be handing China a huge strategic victory, he would be weakening U.S. leverage on China to press North Korea for real denuclearization.
Other players that won’t be at the negotiating table but will complicate the game include South Korea, Japan, and Russia. South Korean President Moon Jae-in played a catalytic role in bringing about the Trump-Kim summit through his own diplomacy with the North around the Winter Olympics. His top priority will be preventing Trump from returning to talk of preventive war against the North, which traumatized the South Korean people last year. Some of the more ideological officials around Moon would like to go even further, reopening the cash spigot to the North through the shuttered Kaesong Industrial Project and Kumgang Tourism site, although UN Security Council sanctions will make that difficult. Former student leaders in South Korea who participated in anti-America protests in the 1980s are pushing for a limited U.S. military role, but their efforts will be constrained by the much broader support for the U.S.-South Korean alliance among the Korean public and in the National Assembly. What makes the conservatives in Korea anxious is that Trump might share the progressives’ views about drawing down the U.S. military presence on the peninsula.
Japan is generally unified behind Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on North Korea policy. He wants all the Japanese abducted by Pyonyang since the 1970s returned home and he wants Trump not to reward North Korea or China by withdrawing U.S. troops, relaxing sanctions, or starting a peace treaty process that leaves Japan in the cold and North Korea off the hook. Abe has also stated publicly that Japan would be alarmed by any agreement with Kim that rewarded the North for freezing ICBM tests while leaving the hundreds of missiles aimed at Japan untouched. Although outwardly supportive of the Trump-Kim summit, Abe will see little upside and plenty of downside risk. His government hopes that those who have Trump’s ear—Bolton, Pompeo, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, for example—will share that view.
Nothing in Kim’s statements thus far indicates anything other than a more sophisticated marketing of Pyongyang’s traditional position.
President Vladimir Putin probably desires what has long eluded Russia in northeast Asia: influence and leverage. At times, Moscow has pursued this by playing a positive role in the diplomacy of the Korean Peninsula, particularly during the Six Party Talks. More recently, Putin has backfilled economic support for Pyongyang as China has implemented sanctions with greater vigor. His hope was that Russian influence would increase if it helped enable Kim’s bad behavior. Russia cannot be counted on or counted out, but for now it is best to marginalize Moscow until the broad diplomatic framework is set.
At the end of the talks, Trump can probably come away from the summit with a historic-sounding agreement on “denuclearization” and on peace treaty negotiations. But CVID will prove extremely elusive. It is possible that Kim truly wants to open his country to economic investment from the outside world, but until now North Korea leaders have viewed that option as comparable to opening the window on a submarine operating far below the surface. Nothing in Kim’s statements thus far indicates anything other than a more sophisticated marketing of Pyongyang’s traditional position. Trump should test that proposition, to be sure, but he should be extremely careful not to surrender the United States’ position on the geopolitical chessboard over a fixation with a politically marketable “denuclearization” agreement. Since the Libya model will be nearly impossible to replicate, Pompeo and Bolton will need to come up with a demand that serves as a real test of Kim’s intentions. A good option would be an upfront agreement on verification protocols and a detailed roadmap for CVID. If Pyongyang balks at that, then Washington will have confirmed exactly what many suspect Kim really wants: all the perks of having denuclearized without having made any of the concessions.