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North Korea: Thinking Realistically Instead of Politically

Less than a month ago, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton threw a large monkey wrench into the planned historic summit meeting between the president and Kim Jong-un of North Korea. Appearing on a number of Sunday morning TV shows, Bolton not only stated that the U.S. would follow the “Libya Model” in disarming North Korea (which ended with the overthrow and murder of Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi), but that we would demand complete and permanent denuclearization as the condition for removing any sanctions on North Korea. A few days later, Vice President Pence echoed Bolton’s position. North Korea reacted with horror and condemnation (including insults) of both Bolton and Pence, resulting in President Trump canceling the upcoming summit. Since that time, Trump has disavowed the Libya model, the summit has been rescheduled, John Bolton is reportedly barred from participating, and, barring some other unforeseen event, the summit will take place in another week.

Virtually all North Korea experts say that Kim Jong-un will not give up his nuclear weapons, his ability to make them, or his ICBM capabilities in exchange for lifting sanctions against his country as an initial step in negotiating with the U.S. He would clearly lose any bargaining leverage by doing so and most experts agree that it is his possession of such weapons that has brought an American president to the table to talk with him for the first time. Statements demanding “complete and permanent denuclearization” as a condition for any sanctions removal have been rebuffed by Kim on several occasions. The North Korean leader has talked about his goal of “complete denuclearization of the peninsula” repeatedly, but most North Korea watchers assume he means also the end of at least American bomb-carrying B-52s flying over or near the peninsula as part of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” protecting South Korea and neighboring countries, such as Japan, as well as other pull-backs of American military threats to his country.

The strategy favored by most North Korea experts is to negotiate some substantial concessions in reducing North Korea’s nuclear readiness in exchange for some reduction in sanctions and of military threat from America, then more reduction in its nuclear program by North Korea, followed by more reductions in sanctions and militarism by the U.S. in a gradual ratcheting down of the nuclear threat and a gradual process of improving the North Korean economy. The hope is that as North Korea becomes more economically successful and joins the world community, the advantages of such changes will be evident to Kim Jong-un and his need for nuclear weapons will be reduced. Of course all such reductions in Kim’s nuclear capability would require stringent verification procedures.

If President Trump could negotiate some beginning of this process, the summit would be a success.

So what are Chuck Schumer and senate Democrats doing sending a letter to the president stating that “Sanctions relief by the U.S. and our allies should be dependent on dismantlement and removal of North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs”?  The letter from the senate democrats went on to say, “our goal must be the full, complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. This must include the removal of all nuclear weapons and military-related fissile material from North Korea; ending the production and enrichment of uranium and plutonium for military programs; and pe1manently dismantling its nuclear weapons infrastructure, including test sites, all nuclear weapons research and development facilities, particularly with respect to advanced centrifuges, and nuclear weapons enrichment and reprocessing facilities. North Korea must also put forward a full, complete and verifiable declaration of all its nuclear activities. Robust restrictions should also be in place to assure that nuclear material, technology, and expertise are not exported, and that North Korea will be unable to attempt to reverse course.”

Of course the demands made by senate Democrats should be the ultimate goal of any negotiated deal between Kim and Trump, but those are the eventual outcomes of such a deal and Kim will be as eager to see that any steps toward achieving those goals are rewarded with lifting of sanctions and removal of military threats to him and his country. The letter from Schumer and Robert Menendez on behalf of senate Democrats does not directly state that complete denuclearization need be achieved before any removal of sanctions, although it implies such a position. It does allow enough wiggle room to reward verified progress on denuclearization without total achievement except as the end goal of such progress. It also threatens senate non-approval of any sanctions removal that don’t meet the conditions spelled out in the letter.

Schumer and other Democrats have a right to be suspicious that President Trump will seek some kind of agreement that falls short of their demands, because the president’s statements on North Korea and its leader have been erratic, because the agreement to a summit was made impulsively, because Trump has conjectured about his being awarded a Nobel Prize for reaching some kind of agreement. The current President of the United States is anything but predictable and often seems more concerned with his own reputation than with a sound diplomatic agenda. That said, the letter from the senate Democrats, which has echoes of John Bolton’s talking points in it, is less than helpful a week before the summit and appears to me to be aimed at the political audience within the U.S. Democrats want to look tough, especially since President Trump has appeared, at times, to be “soft” on Kim Jong-un. By setting difficult, if not impossible demands on the first set of negotiations, they are setting the president up to fail to meet their conditions and can therefore disparage any result he achieves that is less than what they asked for. 

North Korea presents a real threat to America and its allies. No president in the past has had success at reducing that threat and it has continued to grow during the administrations of presidents from both political parties. Any progress is good progress. Everything possible should be done to make some kind of lessening of tensions more likely. Using the talks between Trump and Kim as an excuse to make political points, while creating more risk for some kind of an agreement is putting politics above the good of the country. The Democrats should be making helpful suggestions and rewarding non-belligerence on the president’s part, rather than creating hoops for him to jump through.



Reader Comments (1)

Exactly right Casey. let's also remember that the Democratic Party can't really be named as a party for peace. If I recall correctly there are less than a half dozen pro-peace people in the Republican/Democratic congress/senate.

June 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

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