When engaging in high-level diplomacy, it is a known fact that no concession comes free, or even cheap. You can think of the type of negotiations the United States and Korea are soon to engage in as poker matches where the negotiating sides hold their cards extremely close to the vest, and will only risk giving up some of their chips if they are confident they will receive something worthwhile in return. Generally, negotiating parties will use each “chip” they have as leverage to extract more concessions from the other side, and compared to the United States, who has arguably more of these international negotiating chips than anybody else, North Korea has only one: nuclear weapons.
So, since the United States’ goal is essentially to get North Korea to give up their sole bargaining chip in the world, it should be understood that this will certainly not come free, or cheap. To understand this, it will be important to lay out what North Korea (Kim Jong Un) seeks to achieve:
- Further security of his regime: Kim Jong Un is incredibly afraid of being deposed and ousted in a manner similar to Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. Above all else, Kim will seek to secure his regime as the price for denuclearization. As we will see, this may put US decisions in a very difficult negotiating position.
- Sanctions relief: Additionally, it isn’t much of a secret that North Korea has been hamstrung by years of hefty sanctions. This issue was made even worse for them when, in March, China seemed to step up their enforcement of such sanctions (only to call for the suspension of all sanctions on North Korea last night). For Kim, this new relationship with the United States and the West is his best and only shot to improve his nation’s economy in any meaningful way, so it would be unreasonable for him to agree to a deal that did not include massive sanctions relief.
- Respect on the world stage: It has long been the goal of the Kim family to be received as equals on the world stage, specifically with the United States. Although last night’s summit will help Kim achieve that at home, continuing to engage in high-level discussions with the world’s most powerful nation is a way for Kim to maneuver up the international food chain. This respect will also help him maintain regime security, as it will give him the opportunity to portray himself as a “modernizer” to North Koreans.
What’s at risk
Objectively, North Korea stands to gain far more than the United States does from last night’s summit. The threat of a nuclear attack on US or allied soil is a real and serious, yet unlikely one, and that is simply because Kim understands that such an attack would be the end of his regime, and probably his life. To be sure, this does not mean we shouldn’t proceed with obtaining a denuclearization deal, it just means we need to be careful about how we proceed. To be more specific, it is critical that the United States not make any concessions that damage our ability to defend our interests and our allies.
For example, one of the most likely “chips” Donald Trump will look to cash in are the US troops (28.5k of them) stationed in South Korea. Donald Trump has previously been outspoken about his desire to bring troops home and has further underscored this by agreeing to halt joint military drills with South Korea (without first consulting them). In my opinion, the agreement to halt these drills is problematic for a few reasons, none more important than the fact that Trump has essentially given up a pivotal bargaining chip in exchange for a vaguely worded joint statement that doesn’t offer any new concessions from North Korea. Remember, North Korea had already “expressed a commitment to denuclearize” when Kim met with South Korean leader Moon Jae-In months ago.
From the text of yesterday’s US – North Korea Joint Statement (emphasis mine):
“Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
So essentially, Trump has agreed to halt military exercises for a reaffirmation. Furthermore, the joint statement released makes no mention of this denuclearization would be verified. Remember, The United States once struck a denuclearization deal with North Korea in the 1990s, only for it to fall apart a few years later because it was discovered that they had been cheating. This is a magnificent opportunity for Donald Trump to advance US national security interests, but it is critical that he not commit mistakes of the past.
Japan and South Korea
Also important here is to recall that the US and North Korea are not the only two countries with interests at stake here. It is worth remembering that both Japan and South Korea are dependent on the United States for the defense of their countries. Any reduction in troop levels in or around the Korean peninsula without the permission of these nations would be a clear signal for China to continue expanding their regional footprint, which may well lead to our allies in the region being significantly weakened and thus more susceptible to Chinese influence.
As I have written before, the United States is the largest beneficiary of today’s international world order. Every time we cede influence to China, we are losing our grasp on the world order we helped create after World War II. In the next 25 years, perhaps the greatest struggle for power will be in Southeast Asia, as China and the USA compete for influence in the region; starting this battle off by lowering troop presence may serve our interests in the short term, and thwart them in the long term.
Aside from troop levels, sanctions relief will also play a major part in these negotiations. It is my opinion that sanctions relief will be the United States’ most effective bargaining chip. It is an observable fact that economic openness leads to greater social openness, and over the long term, the exchange of ideas and information from the rest of the world into North Korea will ultimately put them on a better path. Of course, this does not mean they’ll become a champion of democracy, but the more North Korean elites grow to rely on capital inflows (money) from the west, the less likely they are to engage in provocations against the US and our allies.
In the end, this is a worthy goal for the Trump administration to pursue. If the United States can strike a deal with North Korea that exchanges sanctions relief for denuclearization, then the world will be a significantly better place. However, there is a significant amount of heavy lifting that must be done before we reach such a point. Policy makers will need to get creative while attempting to strike a balance between giving Kim the security assurances he needs to denuclearize without jeopardizing other US interests in the region.