25 March 2019

Ahead of the February 27-28th, 2019 Trump- Kim Summit

Mircea Mocanu

Image source: Mediafax

A second high-level meeting between President Donald Trump and the North-Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, will take place in the second half of February 2019. What are the premises of this long-awaited event, dedicated to ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and what are the expectations regarding the bilateral and regional security?


Almost nothing from Pyongyang

Firstly, across the most airtight part of this equation, in Pyongyang, only a few hints emerge about Kim Jong-un’s attitude during the meeting scheduled to take place in Vietnam. The only clear thing is the North-Korean leader’s New Year speech, which shows optimism about Korean Peninsula’s reunification and pacification, through a “go forward” towards complete denuclearization.

At the same time, Chairman Kim Jong-un promises not to produce, test or proliferate nuclear weapons, but the progress hinges on Washington’s “concrete actions”. However, the Pyongyang leader does not talk about ending the war, but about multi-partite negotiations (does China wants to be a part of them too?). As for the United States, he confirms his will “to forge a new relationship” with Washington, wherewith “bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at fast pace… if the US responds” to North-Korean regime’s intentions. However, this speech was dedicated, mostly, to domestic issues and we can only speculate starting from the reference to maintaining the safety provided to this country by the nuclear umbrella.

The press opens another window to scoping out Pyongyang’s intentions, by observing the actors Kim Jong-un uses in the good cop, bad cop logic; precisely, it seems that the North-Korean leader uses the old, tough Kim Yong Chol for sending firm messages, respectively his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, when suggesting that he offers an olive branch (she represented the Pyongyang leadership at the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, and Kim Yo Chol has participated at the closing ceremony). Even on the first option, there are two available scenarios, one wherein Kim Yong Chol acts by himself, and another when experienced diplomats are included in delegations (for example, Choe Kang II, but especially Kim Song Hye, seen as the main strategist in the future relations with the US).


Suspicions in Washington

While the lack of information causes the poor understanding of North Korea’s attitude, in Washington there’s plenty of information, but the United States’ attitude problem is the dispute generated by the new situation and the contradiction between the intelligence evaluations and the political will. Here, tracking the chronology of recent events in the American capital is necessary for getting conclusions out of the dialogue logic of these two different views.

On January 21th, the Washington-based Center of Strategic Intelligence Studies (CSIS) has published a report called Undeclared North Korea, on the Operational Missiles Base at Sino-ri (in Korean language, the suffix ri indicates the smallest administrative division, like village) and the Strategic Forces of the North-Korean regime. This study includes 34 satellite photos and claims that the referred infrastructure should not even exist according to Pyongyang’s records, hence, North Korea does not follow the Singapore treaty provisions.

It seems that the Sino base was built in the 60’s, hidden from the international community (alike other around 20 unofficial missile bases) and has successively hosted missile units, following the Pyongyang’s regime arming effort (Frog-7, then Hwasong-5 missiles). Currently, the Sino base hosts the Nodong-1 intermediate range ballistic missile and seems to be also a North Korea Strategic Missiles Forces missile brigade headquarters. Finally, the authors of this report claim that “While diplomacy is critical and should be the primary way to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem, any future agreement must take account of all of the operational missile base facilities that are a threat to U.S. and South Korean security”. Probably, the imperative incursions in the realm of recommendations have bothered Washington authorities and the optimistic pundits of the future negotiations.

Soon after this study, on 29th of January, CIA director, Gina Haspel, together with the chiefs of the other intelligence agencies, have presented the US Senate the annual intelligence evaluation on the threats America is facing (Worldwide Threat Assessment). The document states: “we continue to assess that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions”.

Also, reviewing paragraphs from Threat Evaluation, the US Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, underlines: “We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities…because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival”, and this conclusion is based on the “observations of some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization”, as reflected in Threats Evaluation.

In the same pessimistic key, other recent information draws attention on suspicions regarding North-Korean biological weapon capabilities. These suspicions consider only limited experimental capabilities, not a full-grown biological weapon, or even a prototype.

Within the American think-tanks, the negativist approach is supported, among others, by Bruce Klingner (with the conservative Heritage Foundation). On 24th of January, he underlined that, since the Singapore event, there was no progress made towards denuclearization: “It is not so much that the process has been derailed, it is that the train simply never left the station”. As representative of a private company, B. Klingner, former Korea desk responsible CIA official, even makes recommendations to the US Administration: “During a second summit, Trump must insist on tangible steps toward North Korean denuclearization, including a data declaration of the regime’s nuclear and missile programs… Trump shouldn’t offer more concessions nor agree to reduce UN and US sanctions until Kim moves beyond the symbolic gestures it has taken so far.”


Critics against Kim Jong-un critics

Of course, the toughest critic of the recommendations above, spread in a large consensus, is President Donald Trump himself, who reacted immediately (24th of January) on Twitter: “The Fake News Media loves saying «so little happened at my first summit with Kim Jong Un.» Wrong! After 40 years of doing nothing with North Korea but being taken to the cleaners, & with a major war ready to start, in a short 15 months, relationships built, hostages & remains back home where they belong, no more Rockets or M’s being fired over Japan or anywhere else and, most importantly, no Nuclear Testing. This is more than has ever been accomplished with North Korea, and the Fake News knows it. I expect another good meeting soon, much potential!”. However, it is well-known that Donald Trump does not rely too much on intelligence assessments, he has even sent some intelligence experts back to school.

On 31th of January, after intelligence community evaluations were published, the US Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, had a public debate (with Robert Carlin, expert in Korean issues) at the Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He supported President Trump’s position without violently counter the opposing opinions and stated that “it is all the more urgent that we engage diplomatically with North Korea to see if we can change the trajectory of their policies by changing the trajectory of our own”.

The American official has underlined that “President Trump is ready to end this war. It is over. It is done. We are not going to invade North Korea. We are not seeking to topple the North Korean regime”. S. Biegun defined this moment as being “an inflection point” and explained that the essential test would be removing the weapons of mass destruction programs in North Korea, “but the issue is much larger than that” and the issue regarding nuclear weapons can be approached by enlarging the security context, the Trump Administration being opened to economically contribute and support North Korea. Another significant statement of S. Biegun was the following: “we didn’t say we ‘won’t do anything until you do everything”, meaning that US can ease some of the sanctions depending on Pyongyang’s steps. Precisely, “we will sustain the pressure campaign; at the same time, we are trying to advance the diplomatic campaign, and we have to find the right balance between those two”.


Who is right?

If we follow President Trump’s advice and we go back to handbooks, we see that both parts are right: intelligence assessments bring what they are supposed to bring, as epistemic authority, which is the best evaluation for the reality in North Korea. What Trump Administration is doing, as deontic authority, is following its intentions, performing risk management, through the strategies they think are the most adequate. Actually, Stephen Biegun is even explaining this, expressing its frustration not against evaluation’s correctness, but how the intelligence conclusions are interpreted: “Intelligence information is critical as an underpinning for the policy, but the policy is to address the threat”.

Threat assessments draw attention on the persistence of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, but they do not make recommendations for the president. It is the perspective of some critics or politicians that points towards a certain direction, not the document itself, explicitly. If the scout reports to the platoon commander that an enemy tank is beyond the hill, the reflex would be to destroy that threat, but nothing and nobody force the commander to decide either to destroy it or not; the commander may decide to destroy it, but he may also avoid it, he may seize it or he may keep it under observation.  

Style is the difference. President Trump could have said that he commends the US intelligence community for the valuable assessments, that would be used in taking further decisions. But that would not become him then, and that was what led to a supposed personality conflict. However, the intelligence assessments can be easily politicized, not by the intelligence brass, but by politicians who take advantage of intelligence products according to their political interests. Hence, as the British security scholar, Sir David Omand witty put it, some politicians use the intelligence assessments as drunks who use the street lampposts for support, not for the light. This is not the case now, when the policy-maker just does not find palatable what the intelligence assessments suggest between the lines.

Critics of the intelligence assessments and the other materials regarding the North-Korean nuclear facilities highlight that these perfectly legit evaluations and comments are, however, counter-productive by setting strong demands against North Korea, because they rock the boat ahead of the bilateral negotiations. The Trump Administration could have made something to avoid this, by simply asking the Director National Intelligence to present the assessments only after the summit with Chairman Kim Jong-un. But the risk management is now democracy’s victim, wherein intelligence assessments, with a certain classification, become public by being presented live in Congress. To that end, Fred Fleitz, of the Security Policies Center and, until recently, national security adviser, John Bolton’s chief of staff, declares that: “IC officials said yesterday that North Korea remains ‘unlikely to give up’ its nuclear weapon stockpiles. All observers knew this. But such a public finding could affect NK's position at nuclear talks and undermine U.S. efforts to convince NK to give up its nukes.”


What should the expectation be on the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit?

Leaving theory aside, what results can we expect from the future Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit?

The current decision-makers are facing volleys of arguments on previous negotiations’ failure, starting with 25 years of negotiations initiated by Bill Clinton. Even DNI Dan Coats draws the attention that North Korea’s nuclear status is still written in the country’s Constitution. But no Kim Jong-un predecessor has ever showed at least one disarmament gesture, and nobody doubts Kim Jong-un’s capacity to change the Constitution whenever he wants to. Of course, Pyongyang’s regime maintains its nuclear arsenal, and has, most likely, unofficial installations as well. What did we expect? To give up all assets? In fact, he did not sign anything yet, and the Singapore statement does not even contain the word “missile”. Joel Witt, former member of US-Soviet Union negotiation team regarding the nuclear weapons underlines that, during the bilateral negotiations, the highest level of nuclear weapon production was noticing, precisely to provide coherence to its own delegation position at the negotiation table.

The statement claiming that only possessing the nuclear weapon can domestically support the regime does not hold water, because the communist regime took the power in Pyongyang without having a nuclear weapon and can continue quite well without it, just by doing some propaganda adjustments. The rationale is purely foreign, as the former US Secretary of Defense, William Perry declares: “I've dealt with North Korea for a long time and I've come to believe I understand what's driving them, and what has been driving their nuclear weapons [program] for decades has been the desire to have deterrence against the United States.”

William Perry (now 91 years old) is happy with Donald Trump’s initiative and his meetings with Kim Jong-un, even if they do not reflect immediately in giving up the nuclear weapons in Korea: “They have stopped testing, which is good, and they've stopped testing long-range missiles, which is good, but they've done nothing to dismantle their nuclear arsenal and there's no evidence today thinking about doing that.” W. Perry continues by mentioning that that Pyongyang currently has ten to twenty nuclear weapons, and Washington can tolerate that; and he continues: “They have the capability, today I suppose to have the capability of killing millions of people in Seoul and Tokyo. But what's their incentive for doing that? Because that leads to destruction. The one thing they hold as primary is the preservation of the regime and sustaining of the regime and the minute they fire a missile at Seoul or Tokyo, they're toast, and they know that. So, they are self-deterred.”

But what would be the extreme limits of expected results? For Kim Jong-un, the maximum would be to get economic support without giving up the nuclear weapons. For Donald Trump, the maximum would be… we do not even dare to imagine that the Pyongyang regime would concede everything. It would be great for someone to convince Kim Jong-un that regime survival does not depend on the nuclear weapons. But that is also difficult. An extraordinary success for the US would be also a verification regime, even without conceding the nuclear weapons.

At the end of the day, if these two do not start a war or do not fight each-other in public, then we can say that we are dealing with a win-win situation, because any minimum advantage that Kim Jong-un gets, it can be seen as a great victory in Pyongyang and, also, any concession that North Korea offers, will be enthusiastically presented in Washington. And I think that both options are legit: any step forward on this field, which was impossible to approach in the past, is a real progress, regardless of any secret and still operational bases of the Pyongyang regime.

Hence, the summit planned for this month is destined to be a success even in absence of concrete decisions leading to a quick denuclearization of North Korea.