Any summit between the leaders of North Korean and the U.S. — regardless of the outcome — is likely to be a big win for Pyongyang, according to the former top American diplomat for the Asia-Pacific region.
Daniel Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs until March 2017, told The Japan Times this week during a visit to Tokyo that merely holding a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, expected before the end of next month, would be a boon for Pyongyang.
“For the North Korea leader, to be treated as the equal of the president of United States — the leader of the free world — is immensely valuable,” Russel said. “Not only does it have huge domestic benefits in terms of boosting the status and standing of the leader, not only does it change the entire dynamics so that North Korea goes overnight from pariah state to, in effect, a superpower, but it also sets the stage for the kind of discussion that the North Koreans want to have.”
Trump shocked both those inside and outside his administration last month when he told visiting South Korean officials who had returned from talks with Kim in Pyongyang that he would be willing to accept an invitation from the North Korean leader to meet.
The officials told Trump that Kim had voiced a commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and pledged to refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests while talks were ongoing.
However, Russel, who was a part of the U.S. team that negotiated the Agreed Framework in 1994 that froze Pyongyang’s nuclear program and aimed to normalize U.S.-North Korean relations, noted that Kim’s offer has long been the North’s position.
“I suspect it is not much different than what we heard in the Obama administration, in the George W. Bush administration or the Clinton administration, or even the George H.W. Bush administration,” he said.
Indeed, Kim’s two predecessors, his grandfather and father, both made promises of a denuclearized peninsula.
“This is a conventional piece of North Korean gamesmanship,” he added.
Russel said the pomp and circumstance of meeting a sitting U.S. president would be a huge boost for the North in terms of normalizing the isolated regime’s status on the world stage and that the message it would impart would reverberate across the globe.
“Most importantly, and most immediately, it sends a signal to the world that it’s OK to take your foot off the gas of sanctions implementation,” he said.
In response to the breakneck speed of North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances, the United Nations Security Council has adopted a series of sanctions resolutions in recent years. Some of the toughest, introduced last year, banned key North Korean exports like coal, seafood and textiles, and drastically reduced the amount of petroleum it is allowed to import.
The U.S., Japan, China and others have also ramped up unilateral sanctions in recent months as part of the Trump-led “maximum pressure” campaign against the North.
But Russel said that “many, many countries, from China to Southeast Asian countries to Africa, have been reluctant implementers.”
“These countries have law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, they’re already busy with their own national security challenges, their own crime problems,” he said. “Diverting resources to go hunt down North Korean agents that are moving gold or money or bootleg cigarettes or coal, it’s not easy. It’s expensive. Most of them don’t really want to do it.”
Russel said that once the picture of Trump and Kim shaking hands makes the rounds, “the vast majority of these governments are going to say, ‘OK, springtime on the Korean Peninsula — North Korea is making an effort, tensions are on a down slope, let’s see what happens. Let’s cut the North Koreans a little bit of slack.’ ”
So no matter how the planned meeting goes, “Kim Jong Un stands to profit pretty handsomely,” Russel said.
On the other hand, “it is less clear” how the U.S., Japan and South Korea would benefit from the meeting, he said.
Already, Trump’s unexpected move has sent panicked U.S. allies and regional heavyweights scrambling. Kim, for example, visited Beijing for talks — his first international trip since taking power in 2011 — at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping despite years of growing enmity between the two.
Japan, one of the strongest and most vociferous backers of “maximum pressure,” was seemingly caught off guard with Trump’s announcement that he would sit down with Kim. And fears that Trump might accept a deal with Kim that removes the long-range missile threat to the U.S. but leaves Pyongyang with shorter-range missiles that can strike Japan have gripped Tokyo.
Russel, who also spent a total of some 10 years in a variety of diplomatic posts in Japan, said this kind of a deal, one that leaves the country in the lurch, would have serious repercussions not only for Tokyo, but for the region.
“For more than 60 years, the United States has prevented war on the Korean Peninsula and maintained stability in East Asia through a strategy of strong deterrence and strong alliances,” he said. “At the core of America’s strategy … has been the credibility of our extended deterrence, the credibility of our defense agreements. To pursue an agreement that insulated the U.S. to some degree and left our allies in grave jeopardy would run counter to the security strategy that the United States has successfully implemented for six-plus decades.
“It would be a serious mistake,” he said.
In response to fears of Japan being left to fend for itself, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has apparently opened the door to the possibility of his own summit with Kim. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, is due to hold a rare inter-Korean summit with Kim on April 27, while a separate bilateral meeting with Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin may also be in the cards sometime soon.
“There is a real risk that we’re entering an ‘every man for himself’ dynamic,” Russel said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were voices around Prime Minister Abe saying, ‘Hey, you can’t be left on the sidelines, you need to weigh in directly with Kim Jong Un to try to protect Japan’s equities because South Korea’s not going to do it, China’s not going to do it, America’s not going to do it.’ It’s an understandable concern.”
While Abe might be analyzing the pros and cons of a high-level meeting, Russel urged vigilance in the face of any potential breakdown in unity and coordination among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea, and more broadly among the five countries involved in the stalled six-party talks with Pyongyang.
“North Korea has consistently attempted to play the neighboring powers off one another,” he said, adding that its “bag of tricks” has long included “divide and conquer” as a tactic for creating space.
Whatever the case, as the talks continue, “it’s plausible to imagine that there will be a number of steps to full denuclearization and elimination of North Korea’s ballistic missile program. But there’s a huge difference between reaching an agreement on initial steps and an agreement that ends with a partial solution,” Russel said.
And if talks founder, might Trump look to his Cabinet, recently loaded with hard-liners on the North Korean issue, for possible military options?
Considering Trump’s mercurial temperament — he has vacillated between offering to sit down for a hamburger with Kim to threatening to “totally destroy” his country — “there is clearly grounds for concern that an unsatisfactory or failed summit could deal a blow to the prospects for negotiation,” Russel said.
“There’s a reason that no U.S. president has considered it wise to start engagement with an adversary like North Korea at the very highest level,” he noted. “If you start at the very top, you have nowhere to go but down.
“And if negotiation is no longer an option, what’s left on the table?” Russel said. “Certainly it raises the specter of a resort to military force.”