Ever since the Singapore summit on June 12, 2018, the United States has not been clear on which path to denuclearization it intends to follow to address North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Like most policies from the Trump administration, the North Korean denuclearization efforts are difficult to pin down and muddled with inconsistencies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has shown that the administration has a consistency problem because he has backed away from his claims that North Korea will end its nuclear weapons program by 2021. The inconsistencies are mainly influenced by Mr. Trump’s decision to not set a deadline. Trump has nobody to blame for his administration’s inconsistencies on North Korea but himself due to his “strategic impatience”. From the very onset, the negotiations with North Korea were mishandled and fast-tracked in a manner that has left the US vulnerable to North Korea’s denuclearization time delay tactics. Claiming victory on Twitter or proclaiming Kim Jong-un as trustworthy to hold his end of the bargain is not enough to erase the difficult nature of negotiating with a rogue nuclear state. The foreign policy academics are now left with the task to make sense of the insensible.
There is a major consensus that the Trump administration’s adoption of Final Fully Verifiable Denuclearization (FFVD) at the expense of Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID) is a play at semantics. However, the Trump administration has still not addressed how it would “fully verify” or enforce the “verifiable irreversible” protocols to ensure the complete or final denuclearization of North Korea’s nuclear program. Pyongyang has had experience of seating on the negotiating table with the US which makes it realize the procedural mistakes that the Trump administration is doing. North Korea will use these tactical errors to squeeze more concessions out of the US while time delaying the denuclearization process. Trump has miscalculated the extent to which rogue nuclear states like North Korea can use deceitful tactics to get what they want and to solicit concessions from their negotiating counterparts based on a false premise. North Korea since the mid-1960s has practiced what we call CCD- camouflage, concealment, and deception- where you seek to give your opponent a false impression or false understanding of what’s actually happening.
Pyongyang’s latest concession demand on Oct. 2, 2018, for the declaration to end the 1950-1953 Korean War in order for it to continue negotiations with Washington proves that the Hermit Kingdom is not only prepared to use threats to stall the negotiations but it will demand concessions from Washington without reciprocation. Kim Jong-un will continue using this tactic which has become synonymous with the Kim family over the years and it is up to Mr. Trump (a president who has not been persuaded by facts) to avoid falling into Pyongyang’s trap. On the other hand, following the June 12 Summit Mr. Trump offered to stop joint military drills with South Korea to appease Kim Jong-un but recently the North Korean leader has been stretching his concession demands to include a replacement of the armistice that could lead the US to remove its forces from the Korean Peninsula. It would not be surprising if the Trump administration decides to remove the US forces from the Korean Peninsula considering that in April 2017 Mr. Trump said that he wanted South Korea to pay for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, whose cost he estimated at $1 billion.
If there are lessons that could be learned from foreign policy history, – it is that ‘appeasement policy’ ends in disaster and has serious ramifications. The appeasement policy by the British and French in the 1930s of making concessions to Nazi Germany in order to avoid conflict resulted in World War II. It can only be assumed that the path that the Trump administration has decided to follow of appeasing the North Korean dictator would also have disastrous effects. The effects might not be war as the case during the 1930s, but they could be the weakening of the deterrence apparatus of the US-South Korea alliance on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s maintenance of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) which has the furthest reaching capacity of any of its nuclear missiles. The Kim family has made it clear over the years that it would never abandon the capability that it considers would bring prestige, economic prosperity, respect and safety to the Hermit Kingdom. Assuming that appeasing Kim would make the dictator denuclearize without proper protocols in place is a flight of fancy.
While the Trump administration is woefully ignorant to the nuances that go into diplomacy, the Kim regime is motivated by regime survival and playing the long game that eventually leads North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons and missiles while weakening the US’ position to put pressure on North Korea. A successful foreign policy that would eventually lead to the denuclearization of North Korea should not be handled unilaterally by the Trump administration but should be influenced by the multilateral framework of the Six-Party Talks. Even though the Six-Party Talks of 2003-2007 failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear armament build-up, the inclusion of China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea as parties to the talks made the framework inclusive of all parties that had interests in North Korea’s nuclear program. At a time that the Trump administration has shown an incoherent foreign policy best suited to dismantle the nuclear program, expert knowledge from a multilateral panel is what the Trump administration needs. It is not enough that South Korea is currently somewhat involved in the talks, because the US-South Korea alliance has a history of diverging interests when dealing with North Korea. The point is not to dismiss South Korea as an interested party, but it is to highlight that the US-South Korea alliance can be bedfellows which feed on each other’s incoherent policies. Same Bed, Different Dreams- describes the U.S.-ROK relationship, a relationship that each professes to embrace but which suffers from different priorities and perceptions.
As plans of a second Trump-Kim summit are being made, the challenges that made the first summit a failure, that produced a non-substantive 391 worded document have not been addressed. As long as the Trump administration is not entirely sure whether to follow CVID or FFID to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program, the second summit would not produce a better result than the first summit of June 2018. Furthermore, there remains the hurdle of the 60 nuclear stockpiles that North Korea has acquired since the last summit that the Trump administration has not elaborated on how it would address. It is doubtful that Trump or his Secretary of State will discuss this matter with North Korea because they are indulging in appeasement of Kim as the best solution that would lead to denuclearization. Instead of rushing through the diplomatic process, the Trump administration needs to re-evaluate its approach to North Korea. A re-evaluation might include following a negotiation tactic that focuses on concession for concession; following a multilateral approach to avoid diverging interests especially on the issue of economic sanctions against the Kim regime; setting a timeline with deadlines that should be followed as a path that would lead to dismantlement and a strict verification protocol that North Korea should adhere. If these approaches are not followed, it is safe to argue that the denuclearization of North Korea will not happen under Trump and world leaders might have to start accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons power.
Header Image: Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images
The author is M.A. & B. A in International Politics by the University of South Africa. He has been published in Asian Journal of Peace. His areas of research include nuclear diplomacy, cybersecurity, and foreign policy. He is currently serving on the IAPSS authorial board and is the Chairperson of the IAPSS SRC on Conflict Security & Crime.