Asia Pacific / Politics | Commentary

U.S. leader's chaotic diplomacy offers chance with Kim

by Satohiro Akimoto

Contributing Writer

Two months after the dramatic Trump-Kim meeting at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, the world’s most heavily fortified border is back to its perpetual state of tension, as if nothing happened.

When U.S. President Donald Trump set foot into North Korea and shook hands with Chairman Kim Jong Un, there was hope that relations between the two adversaries would see a further thaw.

But now, remnants of the remarkable rendezvous are nowhere to be seen.

Instead, North Korea has reverted back to its usual missile-firing activity and brinkmanship. In August, it conducted several weapons tests, including a new short-range missile. But Trump, who ridiculed Kim as “little rocket man” two years ago, told chief ally Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he’s fine with the missile tests.

Trump would rather let things slide than risk jeopardizing the tenuous U.S.-North Korea talks — which increasingly appear to be losing steam. Washington is holding out hope for talks to resume within a few weeks, but Pyongyang is showing no indication of returning the favor.

It is therefore tempting to dismiss the encounter between Trump and Kim at the DMZ as reality-show “handshake diplomacy” shorn of substance. The common narrative is that Trump’s handshake with Kim was a high-risk media gambit only to satisfy his ego and cultivate his domestic support base with the 2020 presidential election in mind.

To start with, the two sides don’t even have a shared definition of what “denuclearization” means. There are increasing doubts Kim will ever abandon his nuclear weapons and delivery systems. On the contrary, Kim may think only nuclear weapons and delivery systems will ensure the survival of him and his regime. The fact that Pyongyang revealed the completion of a new weapons system recently is the freshest indication.

And yet, we should be careful not to write off Trump’s approach to Kim. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius is right in saying that “Trump’s bad qualities shouldn’t blind us to this good achievement (reopening a path to denuclearization and normalization of relations). The fact that this achievement comes wrapped in Trump’s gaudy, dictator-friendly bunting doesn’t diminish its value.”

Previous U.S. presidents have failed to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons — in spite of carefully crafted multilateral diplomacy. Trump’s personal summitry with Kim, while saying “nobody knows how things turn out,” has at least got the North Koreans back to the negotiating table — something they refused to do throughout the Obama administration. It is also worth noting that the international community does not have a viable alternative to communicate with the North Korean leader.

More broadly in the past, breakthroughs in intractable diplomatic problems were made by leaders who engaged in theatrical handshake diplomacy at the highest level, as a result of thinking creatively.

One prominent example is former President Richard Nixon’s handshake with Chinese leader Mao Zedong during his 1972 visit to China.

While there was only one seemingly innocent meeting between the two leaders during Nixon’s week-long visit, the handshake symbolically cemented the historic change of course in Sino-U.S. relations. Interestingly, Winston Lord, who attended the meeting with his boss, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, recalls that the exchange between the two leaders was “not one of the great conversations of all time.”

While Nixon held several meetings with Premier Zhou Enlai during his stay, the most dramatic highlight of the visit was his handshake with Mao, which instantly indicated to the world that the two sides had begun a totally new chapter in the bilateral relationship.

Although the geopolitical contexts are different, there are parallels in the handshakes — including Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin — to name a few.

Kissinger, who was the central architect of Nixon’s overture to China, said Trump “has the possibility of going down in history as a very considerable president” in a television interview in December.

He argued that, because of the combination of the partial vacuum in the world created by the American retreat from international politics by Barack Obama and the new questions independent of past norms asked by Trump, “one could imagine that something remarkable and new emerges.”

The only significant achievement in the dramatic handshake at the DMZ between Trump and Kim was the resetting of the communication on denuclearization and the normalization of the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and North Korea.

So what needs to happen for Trump to capitalize on the DMZ meeting?

First, Washington needs a strong negotiator with the ability to deal with his North Korean counterpart to concretely advance negotiations. He must have the full support of Trump to take advantage of the communication channel, which Trump established through his unorthodox approach to Kim.

It was a good move on the part of Trump to introduce Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, to Kim, to show his full endorsement at the last summit.

Obviously, it is not advisable to reassign Biegun as the next ambassador to Russia, even as the rumor mill churns.

Additionally, Washington needs to assemble a core team of experts that can navigate the complicated talks with Pyongyang. These experts must consist not only of elite diplomats, but also scientists, engineers and military specialists. Additionally, they must be given clear attainable goals with Trump’s blessing.

The actual negotiation of denuclearization with North Korea requires in-depth coordinated efforts among many branches of the government. Therefore, they must be given authority to lead such an effort within the U.S. government from the White House.

The Trump administration must also work closely with Republican leaders in Congress to engage the Democrats in forging a united front against North Korea. Past agreements with North Korea have faltered after congressional pushback. In an age of divisive politics, and as the U.S. enters election season with the 2020 presidential campaign going into high gear, this is no easy task. But any division in Washington is taken as a weakness of the U.S. stance vis-à-vis North Korea and will be taken advantage of by the ruthless leader.

All of these are lessons from history. Nixon’s visit was carefully planned and orchestrated in Washington, in coordination with Beijing as well. Additionally, policy experts and legislators from both aisles supported the dawn of America’s new relationship with China with cautious optimism.

There was even some hope that Nixon’s rapprochement with China might help relieve the bloody conflict in Indochina and hence bring solace to the country, which had been torn apart. As a result, Nixon was able to move forward with China in a way nobody anticipated before Kissinger’s secret visit in July 1971.

Washington must find a way to somehow get China, Russia, Japan and South Korea on board in its effort to denuclearize North Korea. Each country has a significant stake in the future of the peninsula according to its own national interests. Without their involvement, it is nearly impossible to achieve a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.

Recent developments among these countries in Northeast Asia don’t favor such coordination led by the U.S. To begin with, Trump and President Xi Jinping of China have been escalating their trade war by raising tariffs against each other seemingly to no end. On national security, the fate of North Korea, as a buffer zone, is crucially important to Xi. It requires not only strategic calculation, but mutual trust between the two leaders as well.

The troubled relations between South Korea and Japan are also not conducive to the three allies taking a concerted approach to North Korea. The recent termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a pact for exchanging sensitive military information between Japan and South Korea, by Seoul has made it virtually impossible for the two American allies to work together.

Russia is ready to exploit any cracks in the relationship binding the U.S., Japan and South Korea. The recent joint air patrol conducted by Russian and Chinese military aircraft over international airspace between the Korean Peninsula and Japan was another symbolic act intended to drive a further wedge into the three allies.

As capricious as Trump may be, the equally unconventional leader of North Korea can only be approached by the highly unusual leader in Washington.

Kissinger pointed out in the same interview that Trump is a phenomenon that the international community has never seen before, and that he may provide an extraordinary opportunity for something remarkable and new.

For all the drama and chaos Trump has brought to global geopolitics, the hope is that Kissinger is right on both counts.

Satohiro Akimoto is president of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia-Pacific Program.

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