Here’s something you don’t expect to hear at a conference: “Send Lady Gaga to North Korea.” That was the most audacious idea emerging from a recent North Korea academic conference this past March at the University of Virginia. The presenter, in discussing his own research, explained that due to the failure of the recent U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, new ideas and connections—such as increasing cultural and people connections—could help offer fresh ways to build trust in a relationship that clearly has next to none.
If only selling records to little monsters was as easy as reconciling old enemies. In fact, such an idea, while certainly clever, makes one thing all the more obvious: Korea watchers the world over are out of ideas when it comes to crafting creative approaches to solving the conundrum that is the U.S.-North Korea relationship.
And creatives ideas—or any ideas—are needed now more than ever. The recent summit in Hanoi was perhaps the best example of a relationship that goes up and down more than waves in the ocean. Korea hands were shocked by the results—correction, the lack of any result—coming out of the meeting.
And while no sane observer would have expected Washington and Pyongyang to embrace as brothers or friends after moving from outright hostility to summit meetings in less than a year, there was an emerging narrative that this historic event would produce some solid deliverables.
In fact, one news outlet even published what looked like a credible peace plan being negotiated right before the meeting. And yet, the summit produced nothing more than what President Donald Trump referred to as the “walk,” or his reference to walking away from the negotiation table after hearing and declining North Korea’s denuclearization offer—a trade whereby the north gave up its Yongbyon nuclear facility for some measure of sanctions relief.
WHILE THERE are many logical and reasonable explanations as to what happened at the summit, there are none as of now that really add up.
What makes events in Hanoi even stranger is that, leading up to the meeting, comments by U.S. North Korea Special Representative Steve Biegun helped create an atmosphere that offered hope that something truly historic was in the offing.
During a recent speech by Biegun at Stanford University just weeks before the summit, many experts assumed that the Trump administration was approaching the meeting with a more conciliatory approach.
In fact, a number thought the administration might even be moving away from its silly policy of FFVD, or the final, fully verified, denuclearization of North Korea, along with the even more foolish implementation strategy, called “maximum pressure.”
Specifically, there were several lines from Biegun’s speech at Stanford that were praised by many pro-engagement Korea hands, giving us hope that change was just over the horizon:
For our part, we have communicated to our North Korean counterparts that we are prepared to pursue—simultaneously and in parallel—all of the commitments our two leaders made in their joint statement at Singapore last summer, along with planning for a bright future for the Korean people and the new opportunities that will open when sanctions are lifted and the Korean Peninsula is at peace, provided that North Korea likewise fulfills its commitment to final, fully verified denuclearization.
With comments like the above, many experts assumed that Team Trump was relaxing its approach towards North Korea—possibly even dumping FFVD once and for all. As Biegun stated during a question and answer session at Stanford later on in the session:
The President, Secretary of State, entire administration are devoted to the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea. If we do not address the weapons of mass destruction issue on the Korean Peninsula today, we will have an Asia Pacific nuclear weapons challenge tomorrow, and we all need to keep that front of mind.
We already see editorial opinion in regional newspapers calling for governments to begin to think about exactly this outcome. We have to address this, and we have to address it in absolute terms as well as in relative terms.
But in relative terms, we’re also not demanding that this be the starting point. As I said, in parallel we’re willing to look at a lot of other things that we can do together that also build the confidence and reduce the sense of risk or threat that would potentially drive a country to want to sustain that kind of capacity.
It’s not necessary for North Korea to be a safe and stable country to have weapons of mass destruction. In fact, the one remaining issue that could potentially lead to conflict on the Korean Peninsula is the presence of weapons of mass destruction.
Biegun continues with words that gave many pro-engagement Korea advocates reason to cheer:
I don’t mince my words when I say that he is unconstrained by the assumptions of his predecessors. 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. We need to advance our diplomacy alongside our plans for denuclearization in a manner that sends that message clearly to North Korea as well.
We are ready for a different future. It’s bigger than denuclearization, while it stands on the foundation of denuclearization, but that’s the opportunity we have and those are the discussions we will be having with the North Koreans.
ALL OF this was very encouraging to say the least, but how do we transform words into deeds? If peace was at hand, there would need to be a substantial agreement between Washington and Pyongyang to implement it. The best case scenario, and alluded to by Biegun, would be to take the Singapore Declaration, use it as a template, and add concrete substance to it. If that was done, and implemented successfully, U.S.-North Korea relations would be transformed.
Here is where things get very interesting—something like this was apparently attempted. In fact, one outlet, the website Vox, even reported on a deal that was sourced by three different people that seemed highly credible. This included, according to reporting from Alex Ward, some very specific clauses that would have truly made history:
First, a peace declaration to end the Korean War. Second, North Korea would agree to return more remains of U.S. soldiers who died during the Korean War. Third, the United States and North Korea would establish liaison offices. Fourth, North Korea would agree to the closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility or parts of the facility.
None of this should seem like a shock—it was being floated to many foreign policy insiders throughout Washington. In fact, this agreement was one I had also heard mentioned by several White House, Blue House and diplomatic sources who were well informed to know its contents.
What adds credibility to such reports was the specificity with which all parties I spoke with discussed these details, and while nothing was agreed to and there were some small differences in their accounts, considering the degrees of separation among the parties, it seems unlikely such reports were inaccurate, made up, or simply false.
But none of this was meant to be—and we are still scratching our heads as to why. From here, there are additional details that came out after the summit that only make the result even stranger. Not only did the deal above fail to come together, but Trump cancelled what was to be a working lunch and what was called a “signing ceremony”—presumably for the deal that was outlined above. North Korean officials, seeing President Trump ready to leave the summit, suddenly upped their offer, or at least clarified it according to reporting from CNN:
The negotiations were coming to a close at Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel when a North Korean official rushed over to the U.S. delegation. With Trump preparing to leave the hotel, North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui hurriedly brought the U.S. delegation a message from Kim, two senior administration officials and a person briefed on the matter said. The message amounted to a last-ditch attempt by the North Koreans to reach a deal on some sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
U.S. and North Korean officials had been haggling over a shared definition of the sprawling, three-square-mile site and the last-minute overture sought to advance the North Koreans’ proposal for dismantling it. But the message did not make clear whether the North Koreans shared the U.S.’s expansive definition of the facility and U.S. officials asked for clarity.
Choe rushed back to get an answer. Kim replied that it included everything on the site. But even when Choe returned with that response, the U.S. delegation was unimpressed and didn’t want to resume the negotiations.
Why would Trump “walk”? What was his rationale? Could the press reports have been so far off the mark? There are only two possibilities for the potential failure in Hanoi, considering the reporting leading up to the summit that can’t account for this change of events and why Trump refused to negotiate an agreement when North Korea seems to have upped the ante. The first is that many experts simply engaged in wishful thinking and misread, misinterpreted or simply took their own hopes and placed them into Biegun’s Stanford remarks. Those reports were wrong, with the Trump administration never shifting position at all.
The second reason might have something to do with recent U.S. domestic politics. Washington changed its mind—or more likely, President Trump changed his—potentially for a very specific reason. With Congressional Democrats planning to embarrass Trump while he was in Hanoi, holding their hearing on the Michael Cohen saga during the first day of the summit, Trump may have decided a change in strategy was needed to not only change the dynamic, but torpedo a deal that would only hurt him domestically.
Put yourself in Trump’s shoes. You know that progressives will attack nearly any deal that is not incredibly tough on North Korea—and perhaps never be satisfied no matter what bargain is hatched. Conservatives, especially hardcore neoconservatives or Boltonesque Jacksonians, will only support a hardline denuclearization agreement that is essentially akin to a North Korean military surrender.
Who then would support a peace declaration, liaisons offices or just a first step toward denuclearization? Considering the polarization of U.S. domestic politics, the answer is simple: nearly no one. In the context of what was happening back home, and with the Mueller report’s results still unknown, Trump may have gambled that he would gain nothing by making concessions to Pyongyang—at least not at that specific moment.
Here is where things might have gone sour. Trump may have calculated that if he couldn’t get North Korea to bend to a grand bargain—or the total elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons for full sanctions relief—then he should walk out on purpose.
He may have assumed that he could look tough and show up the Democrats or neoconservatives, either by making history and getting a mega-deal with Kim or by walking out. Either way, he might have decided weeks ago that he needed a “win,” his domestic political fortunes trumping everything else.
While the deal that was eventually scrapped—the closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility for large amounts of sanctions relief was less than perfect—Trump could have easily tried to negotiate something more to his liking that would have been not only more politically viable but more in line with his FFVD approach. He could have quite possibly made a deal for Yongbyon with less sanctions relief than Kim was looking for.
One possibility would have been to trade three of five UN Security Council resolutions that the north wanted lifted for an agreement to fully support all inter-Korean economic development projects presently under consideration. Such a deal would have brought tens of billions of dollars in economic development to North Korea. And if snapback provisions were built into the deal—which some reports indicate as something Trump considered to ensure that Kim wouldn’t be rewarded should he decide to squirm his way out of an agreement—the risks to American interests and allies would have been small.
THE GOOD news is that if Trump’s main reason for holding out at Hanoi was domestic political considerations, then the conclusion of the Mueller probe—with Trump apparently cleared of the most serious charges of collusion with Russia—could help to revivify the peace process with the north. In fact, there is no reason the deal that may have been brewing before the Hanoi summit could not be reconstituted.
If we can move past maximalist demands such as FFVD and maximum pressure, then there are many different policy paths to consider that would clearly lessen the overall threat posed by North Korea. There is a clear blueprint to usher in a new era of peace on the Korean Peninsula, protect our allies in the region and offer a real chance at seeing North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, or, at the very least, mitigate the threat they pose.
None of these ideas are new and have been mentioned in press reports over the past weeks and months, clearly building on the Singapore summit last June. Packaged together, Washington and Pyongyang could finally end what has been officially a seven-decade state of war and ensure that the events of 2017—a near nuclear war—have no chance of ever happening again.
First, Washington needs to make Pyongyang understand that America is not an enemy, has no desire to overthrow its regime and that it can trust that what we say we will do. To do that, Trump must set the conditions whereby Kim feels comfortable enough that he can, at the very least, begin to consider the process of denuclearization.
If Washington were to sign with Pyongyang a simple political declaration ending the Korean War, Kim would have the proof he needs to not only trust our intent but to go back to his own people—especially those in the military or leadership circles—and say that America no longer has any hostile intent and our relationship has changed. Trump would be able to do the same and claim a historic win—maybe even that Nobel Prize he clearly would love to build a legacy on.
Next, we should ensure that we can communicate with the Kim regime—especially if another crisis were to erupt. To do that, both sides should establish small liaison offices in each other’s capital to ensure there is never any break in the ability to send messages to one another. This would allow for near instant communication to ensure that important ideas and agreements do not take days to travel from one part of the world to another.
There will be resistance to this. Some will argue this is a de facto type of diplomatic recognition, or essentially the creation of embassies. Perhaps. But with North Korea potentially having the capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons thanks to its advances in long-range missile technology, being able to understand their thinking in near real-time is important.
It also allows the north to get a better window into our own diplomatic strategies and national security thinking as well as our own unique culture, ensuring they do not misperceive our intent. There is no weakness in wanting to have a dialogue with those you have differences of opinion with when those differences could spill over into armed conflict. If that were that case, we would not have diplomatic relations with Russia, China and many other nations we disagree with.
Third, the world must see the first steps toward the north abjuring its nuclear weapons, or at least showing its intention to mitigate such a threat if nuclear disarmament is not possible in the short to medium term. The formula to do that is well known by now, as Kim has already put the Yongbyon nuclear facility up for dismantlement if Washington would offer what Kim described last September as “corresponding measures”—or what can only be considered as sanctions relief.
Here is where South Korean president Moon Jae-in can be of assistance, helping facilitate a path towards U.S.-North Korea détente while improving his own relations with the Kim regime. In speaking to President Trump just after Hanoi, Moon offered to move forward on inter-Korean economic projects that would be worth billions of dollars. Considering North Korea’s economy is only worth $16 billion dollars—half the size of Vermont’s—such an economic shot in the arm would be tempting to the Kim regime. My bet is that the North would jump at the opportunity and all sides would clearly get something they want.
Finally, we should not forget about those Americans—over seven thousand soldiers who are still “unaccounted for”—who served their country valiantly during the Korean War. Given that there are also many North Korean soldiers whose status was also never resolved, both nations should step up efforts to solve these cases once and for all. Washington and Pyongyang should form joint teams that can work together and excavate the battlefields and areas where it is likely remains can be found. History tells us not only that this can build important trust between nations, but also heal the wounds of an old war, much as it did when Vietnam and America embarked in such efforts before diplomatic relations were restored.
History tells us none of this will be easy, but peace and reconciliation never are. I myself was dumbfounded when President Trump announced he would meet with Chairman Kim. At the time I called it a “Hail Mary” in an interview on prime-time U.S. television—not exactly a ringing endorsement.
I was wrong. What I failed to see—along with those on the left or right who are against any dialogue with North Korea to this day—is that finding a way to develop a lasting peace regime, something that will likely take years to establish, is in America’s and our allies’ own national interest.
While we may not be able to guarantee North Korea ever gives up its nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, we can do a lot to ensure that the threat those weapons represent can be lessened. Perhaps a lasting peace regime can take hold on the Korean Peninsula, finally bringing to a close one of the last chapters of the Cold War.
Source: The National Defense