President Trump took an historic step on Sunday by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to cross into North Korea, after shaking hands with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un across the border at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Kim hailed the president’s move as a “courageous and determined act” that “means that we want to bring an end to the unpleasant past.” President Trump said, “Stepping across that line was a great honor. I think it’s historic, it’s a great day for the world.” After Kim crossed the demarcation line to enter South Korea, President Trump said that he would invite Kim at some point to visit the White House. The two leaders held a 50-minute meeting at the Demilitarized Zone, resulting in their decision to designate teams for the resumption of nuclear negotiations that have stalled since the failed summit meeting in Vietnam earlier this year. President Trump noted, following the meeting, that “speed is not the object.” He added, “We’re looking to get it right.”
All of this came about because of President Trump’s willingness to break the mold of formal diplomacy. “The United States, under the Trump administration, has disrupted the longstanding, but failing, US policies of past administrations by seeking to build trust from the top down,” said Barry Pavel, senior vice president and director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. About a day prior to President Trump’s face-to-face talk with Kim, while the president was still at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, the president took a bold gamble. He tweeted the suggestion that he and Kim meet at the Korean Demilitarized Zone for a quick hello and handshake. Much to the president’s relief, he avoided the embarrassment of a no-show when his North Korean counterpart accepted the invitation. “It is good to see you again,” Kim said to the president through an interpreter. “I never expected to meet you in this place.” The hello and handshake turned into a nearly hour-long substantive meeting.
The historic event was marred somewhat by overzealous North Korean security forces who jostled U.S. journalists and injured Stephanie Grisham, the new White House press secretary, as she tried to intervene on the journalists’ behalf. Nevertheless, the unplanned encounter between Kim and President Trump was by far a net positive. Democrat presidential candidates who criticized the president’s move forward are whiners with no idea how to operate successfully on the world stage.
A spokesman for former Vice President Joe Biden shamelessly told CNN that “President Trump’s coddling of dictators at the expense of American national security and interests is one of the most dangerous ways he’s diminishing us on the world stage and subverting our values as a nation.” The Obama-Biden administration’s foreign policy was defined by its coddling of dictators, most notably the thugs running the Iranian regime. The Trump administration has thankfully sought to undo such dangerous Obama-Biden coddling.
So long as President Trump and Kim Jong-un remain willing to talk with each other directly, even against the advice of their underlings, we can expect a continuation of North Korea’s suspension of nuclear tests and its launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles. That is a good thing in itself, and an accomplishment that eluded the Obama-Biden administration as it pursued in vain what it called “strategic patience.” President Trump has managed so far to maintain maximum economic pressure on the North Korean regime through multilateral and unilateral sanctions, while keeping the door open to diplomacy that has dramatically reduced the likelihood that tensions in the region could spin out of control.
That said, major pitfalls lie ahead. North Korea has continued to produce enough fuel to perhaps make a half dozen or more nuclear bombs. Last May, the regime launched short-range missiles. We’re not even sure who will be the leading negotiators for North Korea, after rumors surfaced that North Korean negotiators involved in the failed Vietnam summit were either purged or have been sidelined.
It is also becoming abundantly clear that Kim Jong-un will not agree at this time to implement complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization as the Trump administration has demanded as a precondition to lifting any of the current economic sanctions. The Vietnam summit collapsed after President Trump refused Kim’s demand for removal of the most significant sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s dismantling of only its Yongbyon nuclear facility. After since meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, presumably to secure their support in future negotiations with the U.S. and to pry them away from fully cooperating in enforcing the current sanctions, Kim no doubt felt he held a stronger hand the next time he met with President Trump. He may have tried to play that hand on Sunday. If so, it didn’t work. President Trump made no concessions on the sanctions to get the talks back on track.
Nevertheless, following Sunday’s impromptu meeting, President Trump left the door open to possibly removing some sanctions while negotiations proceed. “At some point during the negotiation, things can happen,” President Trump said. This puts the Trump administration on the horns of a dilemma. North Korea wants to follow a step by step approach to reciprocal concessions with no concrete agreed upon definition of the end-state of complete denuclearization or a detailed road map of how to get there. We have been down that road before, always frontloading major economic concessions that are difficult to reverse in return for illusory promises and easily reversible minor concessions from North Korea.
If the president agrees to remove the most biting sanctions to keep the talks going and obtains what amounts to symbolic concessions from Kim that leave the bulk of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs intact, he would be falling for the same stalling for time tactics and charm offensives that have bedeviled prior administrations. If, for example, the Trump administration goes along with Chinese and Russian proposals to ease some of the toughest UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, such as caps on its imports of oil, as a reward for proceeding with negotiations and offering a few more insubstantial concessions, it will be unlikely to get the sanctions reinstated, whatever North Korea does after that. Kim may also up the ante as the 2020 presidential election approaches, when President Trump wants to feature his peace-making with North Korea.
An all-or-nothing approach is not the only option, however. Even if the parties cannot agree on a formula for complete denuclearization in the near term, there are intermediate milestones that may be more feasible but would still be significant. For example, the Trump administration could press North Korea to irreversibly dismantle all nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and at its first covert uranium enrichment facility, known as the Kangson enrichment site, under unfettered IAEA monitoring and verification.
This could be coupled with the complete and irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s primary manufacturer of ballistic missiles, the Tae-sung Machine Factory. The administration could define the achievement of these milestones as enough of a down payment to warrant the removal of some (but not all) of the UN Security Council’s most stringent sanctions that North Korea objects to, as talks proceed and the moratoriums on long-range missile launches and nuclear tests remain in effect. The administration could also consider steps towards more normalization of relations with North Korea. This way, the Trump administration is not giving up on the U.S.’s ultimate goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Yet it would at least secure, as an intermediate step, the most meaningful concessions from North Korea so far in sharply reducing its nuclear and missile production facilities since the regime began its nuclear program in earnest three decades ago.