from American Ambassadors Live!
In the aftermath of the Singapore Summit between President Trump and DPRK Leader Kim Jong Un (KJU) there has been much commentary regarding who came out on top. Many, if not most, pundits and commentators suggest that KJU was the clear winner in terms of just having a face to face meeting with the U.S. president and generally regarded leader of the free world. Neither KJU’s father nor his grandfather were ever able to achieve such a state of legitimacy, and those promoting this perspective add to their case that KJU gave up essentially nothing to achieve this new status on the world stage. Those believing that KJU was the clear winner go on to point out that canceling the next scheduled U.S./ROK joint military exercises and the implied granting of security assurances for DPRK/KJU in their discussions were a clear win for KJU and a major concession for the U.S. and ROK.
The actual joint statement signed by President Trump and KJU at the end of the Summit if taken literally, however, offers a more optimistic perspective in its four points of agreement. The four points are: the two countries
will work together to establish new relations of peace and prosperity between our two countries.
will work together to achieve a stable peace on the Korean Peninsula.
reaffirm the 4/27/18 Panmunjom Declaration in which DPRK commits to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
commit to recovering and repatriating POW/MIA remains.
The key question for the skeptics, of course, is the issue of trust and credibility. We’ve been down this road of negotiation with DPRK before in previous administrations, and each time when push came to shove, whichever Kim was in power has reneged or failed to adequately comply with the agreed path.
Why would anyone expect the outcome to be any different this time? Unfortunately, the skeptics are again likely to be correct that KJU will not agree to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) as the standard for compliance before we will be willing to remove the current economic sanctions in place and provide meaningful support to help revive the North Korean economy. Our experts on DPRK appropriately point out that KJU’s definition of denuclearization is likely to be very different than ours. Not only would ROK have to agree to never having nuclear weapons, but in all likelihood either the U.S. military presence in South Korea would have to be removed or the U.S. would have to agree to some sort of at least partial denuclearization if DPRK is to give up its nukes. Equally unlikely is KJU agreeing to give us the kind of anytime, anywhere verification access we would need to validate a CVID standard.
So why can one conclude that notwithstanding the long and sordid history of negotiating with the Kims that there could possibly be a different end result than what we’ve seen in the past? Is there a glimmer of hope that we might achieve a different outcome this time around? The case for such a glimmer of hope rests on both the beliefs and objectives of KJU and China’s Xi Jinping. Let’s examine KJU’s mindset first. His primary focus is on his personal and his regime’s survival. His belief has been that the development of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile capability to deliver them was the best way for him to achieve these objectives. What could cause him to change that mindset? One reason would be full recognition that any indication of imminent use or actual use of his nuclear weapons would likely result in total annihilation of him and his regime by U.S. superior nuclear and non‐nuclear military capabilities. Here is where President Trump’s aggressive saber rattling and Sec. Mattis’s carefully calculated and demonstrated practice of proportionate response to aggressive acts by adversaries may cause KJU to hesitate and reconsider his approach. But perhaps even more important is the severe impact that economic sanctions initiated by the U.S. and supported by the U.N. and especially China have had on the North Korean economy and KJU’s ability to fund his war machine, including nuclear weapons development. While KJU has little to no regard for the economic wellbeing of his people, he does cherish his own personal lavish lifestyle and his protective police state and military capabilities. If we were able to convince KJU that if he gives up his nukes, we will provide North Korea with the same type of economic support that has so dramatically improved the situation in South Korea, and do so without overthrowing his regime, there’s some chance, small though it may be, that he will agree to CVID.
Turning to Xi and China, they are key to any likelihood that we are able to persuade KJU to abandon his nuclear weapons. Xi has multiple motives and considerations when it comes to CVID in DPRK. Xi is not particularly enthusiastic about a nuclear DPRK, but his definition of nuclear proliferation is quite different than ours. Xi’s major nuclear concerns are ROK, Japan, and Taiwan with nuclear weapons capabilities, and so those issues would have to be addressed in any discussion in which China would support CVID for DPRK. Xi is also not enthusiastic about 28,500 U.S. troops being stationed in nearby ROK, and would certainly be unlikely to support unification of a democratic Korean Peninsula.
Unification of the Korean Peninsula, however, is unlikely to be part of the discussions unless the Kim regime were to implode from either military confrontation or economic collapse. China loves having the buffer of a communist state in between it and the U.S. backed democracy of ROK. All of this is relevant, of course, because China has far more leverage over KJU and DPRK than any other country including the U.S. China is by far DPRK’s largest trading partner, and China’s reasonably strong support of the current economic sanctions imposed on DPRK is the most important reason we have been as successful as we have in bringing KJU to the negotiating table. The fact that KJU has now reportedly made three trips to Beijing to meet with Xi certainly suggests that Xi is trying to keep a very tight rein on his protégé/puppet in Pyongyang. Xi was clearly unhappy when ROK President Moon Jae‐in became perceived as the principal intermediary in setting up the meeting between President Trump and KJU. There are in fact rumors that Xi has already agreed to provide KJU with relief on some of the sanctions as he tries to reassert control of events on the Peninsula. Thus, in many respects, the ongoing conversations and negotiations that we will be having regarding DPRK’s nuclear weapons will be taking place of necessity simultaneously in Beijing and Pyongyang. Xi could turn out to be as important a factor as KJU in reaching an acceptable outcome for this nuclear dilemma.
In many respects the Singapore Summit was simply a very preliminary round and much more of a “photo op” than a true negotiation. Neither side seemed to come away with a clear win or even a modest hit to their key objectives. There’s plenty of room for nuance to enable either side to back off from what might have appeared to be concessions of any sort. What is far more important now is what will occur behind the scenes in Beijing and Pyongyang between our experts and theirs on the very challenging details that might lead to a successful outcome. If we are to achieve our goal of CVID on the Korean Peninsula, both Xi and KJU will have to conclude that the outcome for their key interests will be better served through reaching such an agreement with us. To help them draw such a conclusion, continued saber rattling and demonstration of proportionate but aggressive response will no doubt be necessary. Any granting of interim sanction relief or economic concessions would be a great mistake. We will probably need to walk away from the talks, or at least threaten to do so, on multiple occasions. Based on history, the odds against a satisfactory resolution are long, but there is a glimmer of hope that things could be different this time around if we play our cards correctly and aggressively. After kicking the can down the road for too many decades, let’s hope so!
Ambassador Stephenson served as U.S. Ambassador to Portugal from 2007 to 2009. Mr. Stephenson is a long time partner of Sequoia Capital, a prominent Silicon Valley based venture capital firm. Prior to joining Sequoia in 1988 he spent 22 year at Fidelity Investments in Boston where he helped found Fidelity Ventures in 1969 and later ran that very successful operation for many years.