When President Donald Trump canceled the projected June 12 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on May 24, he seemed to have stepped out of the classic diplomatic trap into which it seemed he had fallen. But by May 27 he seemed to step right back in it. Regardless of how this venture turns out, understanding this trap, and how North Korea has used it, is essential.

Any government subject to public opinion that commits to a negotiation with an authoritarian one with any degree of optimism thereby certifies the other party’s legitimacy and raises expectations among its own people. It acquires an interest in protecting its own judgment about the other party’s legitimacy and intentions. Hence, it becomes vulnerable to the other’s pressure to make concessions to keep the negotiations going lest their failure impeach that judgment and those who made it. By paying for continuing negotiations with unrequited concessions, the democratic side becomes complicit in creating illusions of progress. Falling into such traps is a hallmark of the US foreign policy establishment, whose representatives were Trump’s principal counselors at the time he committed to the meeting.

It is of scarce relevance whether Trump canceled the summit because he realized that agreeing to it had been a mistake, or because Mike Pompeo had replaced Rex Tillerson as Secretary  of State and John Bolton Replaced H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, or whether he withdrew from the meeting and then resumed interest in it as a negotiating ploy. Regardless of reasons, Trump stepped into a diplomatic trap that is anything but a novelty.

Rather, Kim’s trap (more below about the 2018 version’s peculiarities) is a variation of North Korea’s standard approach to America, practiced successfully time and again since 1985, which must be seen in the larger context of US foreign relations in Asia. The focus of these relations is China – not North Korea.

China’s role

It has ever been so. In 1950-53, North Korea was not the problem – and insofar as it was, it was dealt with quickly. What caused America’s preponderant military force to produce stalemate and armistice in Korea was discord among American policymakers – specifically within the Democratic Party – about China (and the Soviet Union). This discord, thereafter ingrained in the US foreign policy establishment, eventually made it possible for today’s North Korean regime to threaten America with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

Today as ever, North Korea is what it is and does what it does because China makes it possible. China has gained is gaining, and expects to gain more from what North Korea has done and is doing.

Today as in 1950, the main objective of China’s foreign policy is to remove US political-military influence from the Western Pacific. The northern sector of that policy has two components that exist in tension with one another, which North Korea serves as a pawn. 1) The Kim regime, by showing that the US cannot protect itself or anybody else from North Korea’s missiles and nukes, makes it possible for China to present itself to South Korea and Japan as the only party capable of protecting them. 2) North Korea’s existence as a Damocles’ sword over peaceful, prosperous South Korea lets China present itself to South Koreans as the only force capable of realizing their fondest hopes for “sunshine,” peace, and reunification. China only asks South Korea to shed its military alliance with the US and Japan and points to its own excellent commercial relations with America. This foreign policy is founded on fear. But China knows that fear can be over-done. Were Japan – and South Korea as well – frightened enough of Kim, they might choose to protect themselves with their own nukes rather than trust China. Hence the tension, and China’s need to modulate the Kim regime’s bellicosity.

By the same token, China must tread carefully in its strong, fundamental opposition to Japan’s and South Korea’s acquisition of better anti-missile devices. China presents that opposition as being strict to American missile defense. But the Japanese don’t buy that at all. Nor is that claim inherently credible to South Koreans.

That is why China’s strategy is best served by the Kim regime’s policy of luring Americans into endless negotiations that continue to sap their alliances with Japan and South Korea.

North Korea’s modus operandi

In December 1985, North Korea pledged to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Instantly, it declared that it would adhere to its obligations in proportion to America’s withdrawal of nuclear weapons from South Korea. This has been the template: make a paper commitment while demanding concrete actions in return – in this case the departure of US nukes from the Korean peninsula, and  America’s military-political departure in general.

In October 1991, President George H.W. Bush ordered the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from South Korea. Within six months, South Korea had forsworn nuclear power and declared the Peninsula’s de-nuclearization.  North Korea signed the documents joining the International Atomic Energy inspection regime. “Sunshine” had broken out. Except that by April 1993, IAEA inspectors had determined that North Korea was cheating. Late that year, US intelligence determined that North Korea had separated some 12 kilos of plutonium, enough for two bombs.

June 1994. Former President Jimmy Carter, acting for the Clinton administration, negotiated an agreement, fleshed out in October, by which North Korea would “freeze its operations at its existing reactors in exchange for the US providing two “light water” reactors, and shipments of fuel oil to generate power in the interim. But for the next five years, the US fruitlessly tried to get North Korea to stop its traffic in missile technology with Pakistan and Iran. By 1999, North Korea had developed a version of the Taepo-dong missile capable of reaching parts of the US

In June 2000, following a summit meeting between the presidents of North and South Korea that ended with a pledge to work toward de-nuclearization and unification, the Clinton Administration put together a plan of economic aid for North Korea. During the following years, North Korea used the promise of a moratorium on testing of ballistic missiles to engage the US in negotiations about the delivery of that aid. On October 16, 2002, the US announced that North Korea has admitted that it had continued enriching uranium for nuclear weapons. North Korea responded by threatening to end its moratorium on missile testing unless its demands for “political normalization” were met. But by 2003 North Korea claimed that it already had nuclear weapons.

2003 also saw the beginning of “six-party talks” with North Korea in Beijing, in which North Korea promised to end its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for more US aid. In 2005, North Korea committed “to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs,” and to implementing the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which forbids the two Koreas from possessing uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation facilities.

In October 2006, however, North Korea conducted its first nuclear detonation, stating  that it was “entirely attributable to the US nuclear threat, sanctions and pressure,” and that it remains committed  to “denuclearize the peninsula through dialogue and negotiations.”

But in February 2007, North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear activities at the  Yongbiyon reactor for 60 days in exchange for 50,000 tons of fuel oil, to disable that reactor, and to provide a complete declaration of all of its nuclear programs, and to disable all of its existing nuclear facilities – in return for an additional 950,000  tons of fuel oil. In addition, the G.W. Bush administration agreed to remove North Korea from the list of states supporting terrorism and no longer to apply provisions of the US “trading with the enemy” Act.

By August 2008, however, North Korea pulled the string. Charging the US with non-compliance, it declared that its nuclear weapons program was in full force. But, following delivery of more oil, it agreed to resume de-nuclearization – until, in January 2009, it re-defined allowable inspections into insignificance and specified that de-nuclearization would have to include US/South Korean sites in parallel. By April, it had tested a crude ICBM, ejected all inspectors, and once more declared intention to reprocess all fuel rods for plutonium or nuclear weapons.

But by October, North Korea issued another invitation to the US government to send its top negotiator to Pyongyang. The Obama administration sent Stephen Bosworth, after which President Obama said that the United States and South Korea were committed to pursuing “concrete” action to lead North Korea to roll back its nuclear program. By the summer of 2010 however, Obama felt cheated enough to place some restrictions on commerce with North Korea. As if following the script, North Korea let it be known through former president Jimmy Carter that it was now ready for talks on all outstanding issues. It used these talks, however, to showcase increased capacity for producing nuclear weapons. Hence, by mid-2011, both the US and South Korea were demanding concrete actions on North Korea’s part as a condition of further talks.

But by late summer, initiatives by China, Russia, and South Korea led the US back to talks in Geneva aimed at reviving the “six-party talks.” In February 2002 the US announced that, in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food, North Korea had agreed to suspend operations at the Yongbyon site, invite IAEA inspectors and observe an indefinite moratoriums on nuclear and long-range missile tests. But a month later, it tested what it called a space launcher which was as well an ICBM. A month after that, it showcased an ICBM on a road-mobile launcher.

By January 2103 North Korea upped the ante, announcing a new nuclear test and more long-range missile tests. During 2013, 14, 15, 16, and 17 the US grew increasingly alarmed as North Korea effectively advertised its achievement, and now production, of the Hwasong-15, a reliable, mobile ICBMs and of the nuclear warheads they would carry. The US government and foreign policy community became dismayed upon realizing North Korea, merely by running its ICBM production line had become capable of overwhelming the US missile defense system, which has been designed to be capable only of defending against North Korea.

The late Obama and early Trump administrations, rather than respond to requests for two-party negotiations, concentrated on asking if not begging China to bring pressure on North Korea. China’s words said yes, but its acts said no.

What the US government expects Chinese pressure to achieve, or how, has never been clear. What would have to be done to make the Kim regime destroy the capabilities which have made it respected if not respectable? Why would China interrupt a process that has progressively discredited America in Asia?

The trap, 2018 edition

The differences between North Korea’s diplomatic intercourse with America in 2018 and that of previous years are attributable to: 1) North Korea’s real military capacities including the capacity to strike the US 2) the election of Moon Jae-in as president of South Korea, at the head of a party more committed to “sunshine” with the North than to amity with the US, 3) the diplomatic opportunities afforded by 2018 winter Olympics, which Kim exploited in a masterly way, 4) the uncertainties associated with the presidency of Donald Trump.

  • The US political system’s incentives for accommodation with North Korea have never been greater. Without being fired, North Korea’s nukes and missiles have cut substantially into the US government’s status as a superpower, devastated its perennial pretense of nuclear non-proliferation, undermined the conception and subsequent misallocation of resources of its limited missile defense system, and embarrassed two generations of its most highly credentialed experts. Rethinking US missile defense beyond the existing GMD capabilities and building a massive, serious one able to protect America against missiles from China and Russia would obviously negate North Korea’s threat. But to do that, the US national security establishment would have to face up to its own shortcomings. Negotiations with North Korea, however, shield their incompetence, remove the urgency to rethink basic policy, and allow them to pretend that the ends of vintage US foreign policy can still be achieved with the same means.
  • South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, elected largely because voters were repelled by the opposition’s corruption rather than attracted by any substantive prospects, needs negotiations with Kim to validate the one prospect for which his party is best known: “sunshine” with North Korea. Moon quite simply dragged along a not-unwilling US State Department, then got out on a diplomatic limb and effectively maneuvered Trump to join him.
  • Kim’s use of the 2018 winter Olympics shows intelligent planning and execution. He understood the pressure that circumstances, South Korean officials, and the press would exert on the Trump administration to treat his sister who he sent to attend as if she were a legitimate representative of a legitimate government rather than part of a bloody crime family. Coverage of elementary courtesies, of the pageantry, and of the joint North/South hockey team helped North Korea repackage and relaunch of same-old proposals concerning de-nuclearization.
  • Kim also seems to have decided that Trump may be, if anything, more vulnerable than his predecessors to declaring victory prematurely, to confusing process with substance, the prospects of success with success itself – the sizzle with the steak. Trump demanded that Kim give up his nuclear weapons and missiles. Kim, like his father and grandfather, would have no trouble agreeing to that. But like them, he would redefine the terms, and use the ensuing negotiations to make the Americans pay ever more and look even more impotent. He was willing to bet that Trump could be initiated into the game, especially with the incentive of a possible Nobel Peace Prize.

Trump had agreed to the June 12 summit because Moon Jae-in had assured him that, yes, this time Kim really did mean to rid his country of nuclear weapons and to give up his missiles. But throughout May, North Korea’s spokesmen made clear (why so clear, so soon, we cannot know) that, by de-nuclearization, the Kim regime did not mean anything unilateral, quick, or uncompensated. The true meaning would emerge from long, complex negotiations. When Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton recalled the long history of that and reiterated Trump’s original demand get rid of nukes first we remove sanctions later, Kim balked.

But by the time Trump canceled on May 24, the trap had already caught a chunk of him. The public did not take his cancellation well. Perhaps Trump had asked too much too fast? Friends regretted losing the chance to claim another of “the Trump effect’s” magical results. Enemies accused him and his advisers of insufficient faith in diplomacy, of bringing war closer. Moon held a quickie summit with Kim, who, committed, once again, to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” By May 27, the summit was on again, and “phased and synchronous measures” were the agenda. Anyone interested in what that can mean in the future need only look at the past.

In the absence of foreknowledge, each of us might consider how much of our net worth we would bet on each of the following outcomes.

Two years hence:

  • North Korea will have no nukes or intercontinental missiles.
  • North Korea will have fewer nukes and intercontinental missiles than today.
  • North Korea will have about as many nukes and intercontinental missiles as today.
  • North Korea will have more nukes and intercontinental missiles than today.

Remember: you are betting your own money.