Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
As U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un geared up for a historic face-to-face meeting in Singapore last June, one question loomed large: Would the two return to the bluster that had characterized their relationship in 2017? That year, a steady drumbeat of North Korean nuclear and missile tests had prompted the United States to talk of “bloody nose” military strikes to compel Kim to denuclearize.
The Singapore summit was neither a major success nor an unqualified disaster. The leaders issued a joint statement that committed North Korea to a vaguer pledge—“to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—than those it had made on the same issue in 2005 and 2007. Photos of Trump and Kim shaking hands in front of U.S. and North Korean flags lent one of the world’s most brutal regimes unwarranted legitimacy. And without giving Seoul advance notice, Trump offered to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, describing them as “very provocative.”
None of this was optimal. But history suggests that there are no perfect outcomes between the United States and North Korea—only suboptimal and terrible ones. And Trump did accomplish some good things in Singapore. He secured a commitment from Kim to repatriate the remains of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War, and he established the basis for a trusting relationship, itself a prerequisite for any diplomatic process that might lead to denuclearization or lasting peace. Equally significant, the summit did not end with either leader abruptly walking away from the negotiations, which could have precipitated a devastating war.
Of all these pros and cons coming out of the Singapore summit, the surprising affection that has evolved between Trump and Kim has proved to be the biggest game changer. Although the long-term impact of this unusual relationship remains to be seen, it is already reshaping the diplomatic landscape—in ways that put Trump in a distinctly disadvantaged position as he heads into Hanoi.
In Hanoi, the United States will need to surmount new and different obstacles to its goal of denuclearization than in Singapore. The first is Trump’s personal investment in his warm relationship with the “very honorable” and “terrific” Kim. In the months following their collegial handshakes in Singapore, the two leaders exchanged a series of private letters that precipitated a full-fledged bromance. As Trump gushed at a rally in September, “He wrote me beautiful letters. And they’re great letters. We fell in love.”
This bromance is arguably preferable to the relationship of a little more than a year ago, when Trump and Kim traded insults in the name of nuclear brinkmanship. But Trump appears to mistake his rapport with Kim for evidence that the material threat from North Korea has receded. At the same September rally, for example, Trump claimed that “we are doing great” and referred to the North Korea problem in the past tense. But North Korea’s capabilities are still very much intact. The country is estimated to possess somewhere between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons. Its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) might soon have the capacity to deliver these weapons to the continental United States. And evidence suggests the regime has continued to improve its nuclear and ballistic missile programs clandestinely (a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report, for instance, identified 20 undeclared missile bases). When Trump suggests that the North Korean nuclear threat is a thing of the past, Pyongyang faces less pressure to take actual steps to dismantle its capabilities.
The real work of hashing out a comprehensive plan for denuclearization should be happening among diplomats at a lower level, but Trump’s relationship with Kim appears to be getting in the way. To his credit, Trump has tasked a competent team led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and special North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun with kick-starting this process. But throughout the fall, the North Koreans dragged their feet. Biegun, who was appointed in August 2018, did not get to sit down with his North Korean counterpart until late January. A meeting with Pompeo in November was canceled at the last minute. In one of his letters, Kim reportedly ruled out dealing with anybody but Trump himself.
The Trump-Kim bromance has had a snowball effect as other regional power brokers ramp up engagement efforts with North Korea. In 2017, Trump devised a policy of “maximum pressure” against Pyongyang, mounting a sanctions campaign that helped bring Kim to the negotiating table. Now governments that signed on to that campaign are scrambling to establish their own relationships with the formerly reclusive North Korean leader, effectively diffusing the collective economic squeeze.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Kim three times in 2018, seeking to revitalize shared cultural and economic projects and to reduce military tensions along the border. Not to be outdone, Chinese President Xi Jinping has met with Kim four times since March 2018, including once last month on Kim Jong Un’s 35th birthday. As North Korea’s largest trading partner and longtime ally, China is eager to demonstrate its influence over Pyongyang—and possibly to use it as leverage in trade negotiations with the United States. Russia has made its own moves to increase its role on the Korean Peninsula, restarting talks with Seoul about building a gas pipeline that would pass through the North to connect Russia and the South. Russia is also reported to have secretly offered to run a nuclear power plant in North Korea in exchange for the North’s nuclear disarmament. A Russian official late last month announced that President Vladimir Putin has a meeting with Kim “on the agenda.”
Japan has encountered greater difficulties in its attempts to engage North Korea than others, partially because of its underlying preference for a hard-line stance—one that aligns closely with that of the United States before Trump’s abrupt turnaround. Lingering historical grievances between the two countries have not helped. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that he would be willing to meet with Kim and that “various channels” for his government to communicate with North Korea are open.
The “maximum pressure” campaign was the work of a united front that has grown significantly less united since the Singapore summit. Kim now sits at the center of a diplomatic flurry that allows him to play regional actors, with their varied priorities, against one another.
With a withered regional pressure campaign, no detailed denuclearization plan, and a U.S. president who publicly underestimates his capabilities, Kim enjoys a considerably stronger position now than he did going into the Singapore summit. In Hanoi he will likely deflect attention from denuclearization to other elements of the Singapore statement, such as establishing “new U.S.-DPRK relations” and building “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” No doubt he will demand further concessions from the United States, including sanctions relief and a declaration to end the Korean War. North Korea has already shown its goodwill on the nuclear issue, he will likely claim, by freezing nuclear and missile tests, dismantling a missile-testing site, and blowing up parts of a nuclear-testing facility. But these tests and facilities are no longer critical to North Korea’s nuclear program.
Trump, looking for sensational press coverage, might make extravagant offers, such as to reduce U.S. troop levels or remove military assets from the region. At his campaign-style rallies at home, he could spin these concessions as wins that advance the righteous cause of “peace” and save the United States money. The outcome would resemble Singapore’s: light on denuclearization, heavy on symbolic comity, with some U.S. concessions thrown in. But the repercussions would be considerably worse, because the United States will have conceded more than military exercises in exchange for North Korea’s continued vagueness and stall tactics. Essentially, Trump would be buying the same lame product for more money.
But there are other ways Kim could play his winning hand. He could offer a “big” military concession—specifically, the dismantling of his ICBM program—in exchange for a commitment to a significant U.S. drawdown in the region. If Trump accepted such a deal, he could promote it as a major triumph for the United States, with cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago no longer vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear attack. But the United States would leave its allies, South Korea and Japan, exposed, because these countries lie within range of North Korea’s short- and medium-range missiles. North Korea and China would benefit, as both have long hoped to divide the United States from its allies. Seoul and Tokyo might look to devise military strategies independent of the United States and decide to produce nuclear weapons of their own. Pyongyang could even make a run at another long-standing goal: reunifying the Korean Peninsula on its own terms. The instability such a chain of events would unleash would certainly reach U.S. shores, even if North Korean nuclear weapons could not.
There are better options. As we argued in these pages before the Singapore meeting, the Trump administration strategy must deepen the pressure on North Korea to denuclearize in concert with allies while advancing longer-term U.S. objectives in the region—even as it continues to engage in diplomacy and summitry. Some of our recommendations may seem less feasible than they once did, given Trump’s unconventional treatment of allies and his pivot to engagement rather than coercion in his dealings with Kim. But as much as Trump has relished displaying his affection for Kim, he also prides himself on being tough.
Pressuring North Korea would require some marked shifts in how Trump’s administration engages with U.S. allies—particularly Japan and South Korea, which are themselves experiencing unprecedented tensions in their relationship. But it would be negligent to not make some effort to nudge Seoul and Tokyo together, and Washington has historically been quite successful in doing so when the stakes run high. Other elements of the strategy are either already present or lying dormant in Washington’s current approach. Sanctions, though less rigorously enforced than before, remain in place, and Washington continues to support them as a central element of its North Korea policy. Just in September, the United States established a new multinational coalition to track ships suspected of violating such sanctions, and it added sanctions on three top North Korean officials as recently as December.
Since the Singapore summit, Kim has slow-rolled denuclearization with few repercussions. Going into Hanoi, Trump risks exacerbating this trend. Whether his bromance with Kim becomes a liability or an asset will depend on his ability to mount sustained pressure on the nuclear issue while keeping long-term U.S. regional interests in view. A strategy that pairs these aims would allow Trump to continue his joy ride with Kim without losing control of the wheel.