Korea, Mueller, and National Security

By Peter O’Brien

Senior Fellow, London Center for Policy Research

The majority opinion seemed to be, in the wake of the last summit between North Korea and the US, that the summit was a failure. As there was no agreement, I suppose that’s an accurate, if limited, assessment. If the whole point of the summit was to produce an agreement, no matter what that agreement might say, then no agreement certainly constitutes failure.

That’s not as simplistic as it might sound, at least not in practice. Throughout the 1970s (and the mentality survives here and there to this day), the idea was quite prevalent that if you worked yourself into a summit – particularly one regarding nuclear weapons – then failure to reach any agreement was a catastrophe. Thus, the nearly universal dismay when Reagan walked out on Gorbachev in the 1986 Reykjavik summit.

Since the February summit “failure,” Kim has stirred the pot, testing a short range missile, and meeting with Tsar Vlad in Vladivostok. But no follow-on meeting with Trump has yet been announced. So, what’s really going on?

Henry Kissinger commented – several times – that “everything is linked.” When he made that comment (during the height of the Cold War), there were ongoing negotiation to limit US and Soviet nuclear forces, and as a bargaining chip there was talk of either withholding or accelerating grain shipments to the Soviet Union in light of their perennial “unusual meteorological conditions resulting in a reduced harvest.” Kissinger’s point was that money and labor not spent on agriculture could be redirected to other efforts, in particular, Soviet’s nuclear forces.

Everything remains “linked.” In the case of North Korea, the thing probably most closely linked to the talks are US internal politics. Rather than, as some suggested immediately after the summit “failure,” that Trump hadn’t done his homework, or that his negotiating style simply wouldn’t work against Kim, it would seem, given the timing of the meeting with Putin, as well as reports of North Korea being woefully short of hard currency, needed to buy certain goods on the black market – a direct result of the tightened sanctions of the Trump administration – that Kim wasn’t going to give ground to Trump because Kim was waiting for Trump to go away.

Kim probably hoped Mueller’s report would result in, at the least, a seriously weakened Trump who would need foreign policy successes as counter-weights to Mueller-fed indictments, etc. Thus, “delay now,” and in a follow-on summit Trump would be willing to reach nearly any agreement with Kim.

But, instead of Mueller’s report weakening Trump, it appears to have done just the opposite. Now Kim needs more external help to survive. Thus, the meeting with Putin took on real significance, as does the call to return to “multi-lateral” negotiations – the failed Six-Party talks (US, Russia, China, Republic of Korea, Japan, North Korea – from 2003 to 2009) from which North Korea was able to extract various concessions or at least unenforced sanctions. The Six Party talks were, simply put, a failure in stopping North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, as were the sanctions of the previous administration.

But Trump changed tactics from previous administrations, and the result is now seriously impacting the North Korean leadership class. Kim wanted (and wants) a weakened Trump. One suspects Kim is dearly hoping that, if he can survive to January, 2021, that he’ll see someone other than Trump in the White House, and that the US will return to gentler tactics against the North.
In short, Trump was right to walk away from the talks, because Kim wasn’t going to give ground on his nuclear force, and Trump (and the previous 3 administrations) had made that the cornerstone of US policy.

We should expect a meeting between Kim and Emperor Xi in the near future. And, Putin and Xi will call for renewed talks. But, we should insist on continuing the current format, but without first lifting sanctions. And without yielding on our key point: no nuclear weapons in North Korea.

In the meantime, we need to remember Secretary Kissinger’s observation: everything is indeed linked.

Congress in particular should remember this. This is not to say that legitimate struggles between the executive and the legislature should be somehow curtailed. But the national interest should be more than partisan, and more than focused on the short-term. Let’s hope there are still Democratic members of Congress who think that way…