If Americans have learned anything from brinkmanship and summitry with North Korea these past few years, it should be that familiarity can clarify not only differences, but also what remains unknown. Dialogue may deepen mutual understanding or mutual distrust – sometimes both.
Revelations emerging from the Trump administration provide a trove of first-hand accounts of dealing with Chairman Kim Jong Un. We now have two previous national security advisers’ accounts, excerpts from Kim’s private letters, and candid conversations by the U.S. president in which he speaks about his North Korean interlocutor.
After this haul of information, you would think we might have answers to some basic questions, such as Kim’s real diplomatic objectives and his thinking about possible redlines. What has Kim sought to achieve from negotiations with President Donald Trump? Does the North Korean leader truly fear ROK-U.S. alliance military capabilities? And what provocations, including the threat or use of force or cyberattacks, is Kim capable of in the coming weeks, months, or years?
The White House’s approach to negotiation has left those questions unanswered. The president’s weakness for flattery and preference for improvisation and personal diplomacy has allowed Kim and his negotiation team to glide through summits while remaining reticent, evasive and noncommittal. However, we can conclude that we should be skeptical about Kim’s willingness to negotiate in good faith or to abandon his cyclical pattern of provocations.
In “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” soldier-scholar H. R. McMaster explains how “fire and fury” sought to ratchet up maximum pressure in preparation for diplomacy. Former President Barack Obama had warned Trump about the danger of North Korea acquiring an operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). So, when Kim conducted his country’s sixth and largest (putatively “hydrogen”) nuclear test on September 3, 2017, Trump let McMaster know that “Pyongyang [should] first feel the consequences of its actions” before offering a diplomatic off ramp.
From McMaster’s perspective, the primary purpose of bringing Kim to the bargaining table would be to try to compel and persuade North Korea to alter the pattern of its actions, which had perpetuated decades of hostility. McMaster writes that the problem was that “the cycle of North Korean provocation, feigned conciliation, negotiation, extortion, concession, promulgation of a weak agreement and the inevitable violation of that agreement actually encouraged the North’s aggression.”
John Bolton picks up the inside-the-White House narrative from there. In “The Room Where It Happened,” Bolton chronicles the events surrounding the Trump-Kim summits, in Singapore in June 2018 and Hanoi in late-February 2019.
The Singapore summit might have never happened had it not been for a missive from Kim hand-delivered to the White House less than a fortnight before the scheduled inaugural rendezvous. Bolton dubs this “the beginning of the Trump-Kim bromance.” After social media rendered formal correspondence anachronistic, leave it to North Korea to resurrect the art of persuasive letter-writing. As Bolton narrates, even though the letter was “pure puffery,” Trump disparaged his predecessors as “stupid” and saw a historic opportunity to single-handedly end the decades-long animosity with North Korea.
The Singapore conclave broke the ice, but it did no more than begin a process with a broad statement of leaders’ intentions. When senior Trump administration officials met in late July to assess the aftermath of the Singapore summit, Bolton agreed with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who “was emphatic that North Korea had made no significant steps toward denuclearization and that there was ‘zero probability of success.’”
The president should have insisted on concrete results at lower levels of dialogue before convening a second summit. Instead, writes Bolton, Trump was again animated by his pen-pal in a letter crafted “as if [it] had been written by Pavlovians who knew exactly how to touch the nerves enhancing Trump’s self-esteem.” More alarmingly, Bolton also says Trump believed he could strike a deal and insisted on another leaders’ meeting after the November 2018 midterm election.
Both McMaster and Bolton want the record to show that Kim Jong Un did not dupe them. In one surreal moment in Singapore, Kim hinted at the kind of mind games he was playing when he asked the hawkish national security adviser: “You may find this hard to answer, but do you think you can trust me?”
In “Rage,” Bob Woodward relates Trump in his own words. In contrast to his national security advisers, Trump compares Kim’s attitude toward his nuclear arsenal to real estate, “you know, somebody that’s in love with a house and they just can’t sell it.” Neither McMaster nor Bolton was enamored of Kim’s flattery, but the president apparently was. As Woodward told “60 Minutes,” Kim’s letters were “masterpieces … appealing to Trump’s sense of grandiosity.” After Singapore, Kim encouraged Trump to hold “another historic meeting between myself and Your Excellency reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film.” Trump swooned over Kim’s florid embellishment that a “deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force.” Trump compared their chemistry to a romantic relationship – “You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen.”
One thing Kim appeared to want was an understanding of U.S. military capabilities and, ideally, to tempt Trump to follow-through with his unilateralist notion of a troop withdrawal. For Bolton, this was an abiding concern. And Kim was rewarded with a cessation of some alliance military exercises, and perhaps inferred a Trump promise to curtail them altogether.
Trump was not good at holding back from making bold promises or divulging secrets. Consider the president’s assertion to Woodward that, “I have built a nuclear – a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before. We have stuff that you haven’t even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There’s nobody – what we have is incredible.”
The upshot of these revelations is that the Trump-Kim diplomatic era has merely solidified American skepticism about Kim’s motives. Yet there seem to be some in South Korea who still think Pyongyang is interested in a deal. There are even some willing to unilaterally assist a nuclear-armed North Korea on the assumption that peace may eventually result.
On September 11, the anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks on the U.S., NKNews led with this story: “Kim Jong Un: ‘Hypersensitive’ U.S. military actions contributed to failed talks.” The headline lent credence to Kim’s suggestion that the June 2019 pledge to resume talks failed because Trump allowed an alliance command post exercise planned for August to proceed. In another letter, Kim disingenuously asked: “Against whom is the combined military exercises taking place… and who are they intended to defeat and attack?” The unspoken answer: Kim Jong Un and his significantly improved arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons.
Repeating Kim’s narrative that the exercise halted negotiations is dangerously misleading. Kim’s effort to shift blame for the breakdown of negotiations ignores the fact that throughout the negotiation process, the North Korean leader refused to offer any meaningful concessions that would freeze his nuclear program, regardless of the offers put forward by the U.S. Kim was seeking lop-sided concessions and when it became clear that the U.S. was unwilling to offer him that, he used the exercise as a pretext to back out of negotiations. The primary impediment to the diplomatic progress has always been North Korea’s unwillingness to follow through on its promises to denuclearize.
We may have to coexist with North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the sense that we do not wish to start a war to disarm them. But accepting North Korea as a permanent nuclear-weapon state heightens risk, too. The Pentagon’s latest annual report on China’s military asserts that Beijing may be moving its strategic forces to a “launch on warning” posture. As the PLA pushes hard to integrate long-range lethal firepower with advanced information technology, it may move toward a military doctrine that effectively seeks to act first and ask questions later. North Korea faces even greater pressure to adopt a similar nuclear posture and we need to prepare for that possibility. These moves, combined with Pyongyang’s inventory of land-based, and soon sea-based, nuclear-tipped missiles, are fraught with implications for crisis stability in Northeast Asia.
These trends have ripple effects throughout the region. For example, it is no wonder that Japan sees a growing need to adopt its version of “active defense” by overcoming the taboo against offensive strike capabilities.
For the moment, Kim has his hands full with a pandemic, economic hardship and natural disasters. If it were not for these internal complications, surely Kim would be even more inclined to conduct an October surprise sometime around the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party parade scheduled for October 10, or even right up to the crucial November 3 U.S. presidential election.
Or perhaps because of these myriad internal problems, Kim may be more inclined than usual to revert to North Korea’s old playbook. An ICBM mock-up making its debut at next month’s parade would be unsurprising. But we should not be surprised by even more offensive actions. The ROK-U.S. alliance should be ready for a more significant provocation, from the threat of force to the testing of a mobile ground- or sea-based ballistic missile to a substantial escalation of cyber warfare.
While the past few years have demonstrated Kim’s desire to retain nuclear weapons but avoid military conflict in the process, we should not allow our governments to become so conditioned that they assume Kim’s only options are peaceful ones. If recent dealings with Kim have taught us anything, it should be to mind the gap between the familiar and the certain.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Korean-language newspaper, DongA Ilbo.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute.