Terry Schwadron

Apr 22, 2018

4 min read

Korea: Concessions, Wariness and Time

Terry H. Schwadron

April 22, 2018

Sometimes governments make change, and sometimes, of course, the change is already under way, and governments are there to take the credit or blame.

As job numbers increase, it is actually some combination of eight years of rebuilding under Barak Obama after a worldwide economic collapse, and some acceleration of progress as a result of President Donald Trump’s significant corporate tax cuts.

Of course, no single government or administration makes the economy purr, but the political divide in the country is so deep and wide that most of us can’t say that. Sure, the tax cuts have helped fuel certain kinds of corporate growth, but they haven’t brought prosperity to all, or significantly widened job training or reduced income gaps.

So, I wonder about this approaching summit among North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Trump. The early concessionswe are seeing from Kim are both encouraging for a more successful summit and fodder for wonder about whether they are coming about as the result of sanctions and name-calling, or because it is a more organic outcome of years of isolation in the world community of nations.

Trump and supporters already are boastful about the early concessions that Kim is making. After having spent time worrying about how badly a summit could go, I’m now trying hard to imagine what will happen if Trump and Moon win enough concessions from Kim to declare success.

Unlike most world crises, this one has a specific and singular goal — elimination of nuclear weapons development in North Korea. To that end, the United States and South Korea have led years-long efforts to punish, cut off and generally brow-beat North Korea into compliance. The North Koreans have been painted as bad characters, unreliable negotiating partners, and unclear about what they want in return for standing down.

Still, it’s not clear that we know what success in this arena actually looks like.

It’s long been said that Kim wants a re-unified Korea, the withdrawal of U.S. military forces and total control. South Korea wants to end hostilities. The U.S. wants no nukes. Now, comes Kim offering basically to freeze nuclear weapons development, including closure of a base, and ending any demand for the U.S. to withdraw troops.

Amid White House boasting, there is some wariness: This is a good start, says the president, but we need more. And we need to trust that North Korea will stand by its word. There is no discussion about what any such agreement will cost the United States other than the elimination of its economic sanctions.

Freezing nuclear development, if true, still is a long way away from eliminating the nuclear program. Eliminating the program, in turn, is a long way from establishing verifiable measures that allow monitoring that it won’t grow anew. And even that is a long throw from any ban on exporting nuclear technology elsewhere, as Iran is alleged to have done to help North Korea. And all of that is a far, far distance from Korean re-unification, a new outlook in North Korea towards human rights and a country that does not suffer hunger.

Halfway around the world, the Iranians, who basically are the North Korea of their region, must be watching every move, since Trump and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo want to toss the existing agreement to develop nuclear weapons in Iran.

Now in a more normal U.S. administration, you’d think we would have people in the State Department who had made themselves expert in North Korean affairs to be able to gauge more smartly North Korean words and deeds. But the Trump administration believes in presidential gut over informed diplomacy, and so, here we are, on the virtual eve of this important summit with a president who basically wants to wing it.

And — so far, it is working. If Kim folds, Trump’s ego will swell, and in addition to the congratulations that he should receive for the effort, we’ll be subject to never-ending self-promotion and self-aggrandizement that will last past the next presidential election.

Still, the wonder factor is still there. We don’t know enough about Kim and North Korea to know whether this all was a ruse to gain status or to draw negotiated investment in his country or to bring him worldwide acclaim as a peacemaker.

I wonder, in other words, whether Kim is really driving the bus here, and manipulating the predictabilities of his negotiation foes towards an end that just is overdue. In other words, might good things have happened in these negotiations even without the Trump name-calling, and just as the result of long-term sanctions that have been in place now for decades. I wonder if China is pulling the strings here, gaining ground in a much longer-range competition with the United States in which North Korean nuclear threats are an inconvenient distraction towards global economic dominance.

However ham-handedly, Trump’s America First ideas — to say nothing of South Korea’s professed renewed interest in a single Korea — have pushed its way to what now look to be a building number of concessions by North Korea. The important thing will prove to be the results, not the process, of course.

But one outcome of success will be a Trump who thinks his bullying tactics are diplomatic maneuvering, a world-wide Art of the Deal.

If the time is not right, however, that holds a built-in formula for danger.

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