Risk of free-fall at Korean Summit

Peter Sylvestre's picture

KIM JONG-UN may now be ruing the ‘success’ of his propaganda department in depicting the destruction of Washington DC. There are real risks for both sides in the pending Summit . . .

SEOUL - The long-awaited North Korean acknowledgement on April 8 of President Trump’s unexpected announcement on March 8 that he had accepted the summit proposal by Kim Jong-un, aka “Little Rocket Man”, is the latest twist emerging from Trump’s impulsive style of diplomacy.

Apparently acting without soliciting advice from his advisors, the “Senior Dotard” had quickly accepted Kim’ s offer, which was personally conveyed to him by the Director of South Korea’ s National Security Office, Chung Eui-yong.

But what Trump’s political base saw as a masterful Kissingeresque diplomatic coup was a decision greeted with dismay by more than a few diplomats and strategists.

The prevailing concern is that both sides run the risk of miscalculation - because of assumptions and expectations that may not be firmly grounded.

The cheers for Trump are based on the assumption, probably well-founded to a point, that North Korea’s new  charm offensive (Kim’s sister Yeo-jung attending the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the DPRK generally refraining from provocative action and words, and diplomatic overtures towards the ROK and the PRC) are due to Trump’s firm, even bellicose, tone.

The question is whether the DPRK leadership is sufficiently concerned by Trump’s threat of pre-emptive attack that the North will be willing to reverse the course of strategic independence begun by Kim’ s grandfather so many decades ago.

By handpicking John Bolton as his National Security Advisor on March 22, Trump may have already doomed, perhaps intentionally, any possibility of success for high-level talks.

Bolton has publicly and repeatedly disdained the use of diplomacy (as does U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley) as a tool for peaceful resolution on the Korean pensinsula. Bolton is one who still proclaims the wisdom of Gulf War II, despite its resultant horrific quagmire.

Only three days prior to his appointment, Bolton opined to the US publicly-funded Radio Free Asia that “if this (Korea) meeting is going to take place, it will be similar to discussions we had with Libya 13 or 14 years ago”.

He warned that if the Kim regime was “not prepared to have that kind of serious discussion, it could actually be a very short meeting”.

The DPRK’s Korea Central News Agency  has previously denounced the U.S. for plying Libya with “such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm itself” (see ATI September 2017).

KCNA pointedly says the U.S. “then swallowed (Libya) up by force” in 2011 when denouement of the Libyan process unfolded and NATO enforced the UN Security Council’s no-fly zone.

The DPRK’s explicit long-standing rejection of the Libyan process is well-known by analysts and journalists alike, and Bolton’s insistence upon this route betrays either woeful ignorance or deliberate duplicity.

Unhelpfully, in the same interview, Bolton proposed giving the North Korean regime nothing in return for denuclearising - neither economic aid nor even a peace treaty.

Dismissing DPRK interests with “they’re lucky to have a meeting with the President of the United States”, Bolton loftily advised that “they should ask for reunification with South Korea”. 

Even Gaddafi had been offered more. Not that it ultimately mattered, as the DPRK leadership is well aware.

A number of Trump pronouncements regarding South Korea and China are also likely to profoundly complicate any “negotiations” that may take place.

There are too many unpredictable elements, ranging from Trump “holding up” his approval of KORUS FTA revisions (which he himself had pushed for) to the need to be seen to succeed in any summit with North Korea - and a looming trade war with China.

How North Korea will feel pressured by Trump’s “very strong card” of linking ROK-US trade to North Korean denuclearisation has yet to be coherently explained.

But is the DPRK simply playing for time as it continues its decades-long drive to acquire a credible second-strike nuclear capability?

That is precisely what Bolton, on very strong grounds, has repeatedly said he believes.

Citing 25 years of DPRK foot-dragging on non-proliferation, Bolton determines that “there’s no reason to think that their behaviour has changed”.

Most North Korea-watchers are almost certainly in agreement.

Given Trump’ s flimsy record of adhering to previously-negotiated agreements, following through on his word or even negotiating based on fact (ask Justin Trudeau), the Kim regime will find no basis for trusting any assurance from the U.S. President.

If Bolton is really speaking for Trump, Trump is indeed unlikely to offer anything in return (for denuclearisation).

So what is the Trump-Bolton game plan (if the two are actually capable of devising a coherent, well-conceived strategy)?

Will Trump go to Korea, perhaps early in May, to then  announce that Kim won’t play ball, return, and then launch some form of pre-emptive strike?

Conversely, how may Kim Jong-un counter the US diktat terms?

North Korea could cede long-range ICBM capability and pursue Trump’s campaign plan of allowing South Korea and Japan to create their own forces of deterrence as the US withdraws its forces from the Korean peninsula.

Conversely, it could attempt to convince Trump that it already possesses the technology to inflict catastrophic, unacceptable damage that could topple the US from its hyperpower status in favour of China and Russia - in short, playing the role of spoiler in its own version of MAD Gotterdammerung.

If the DPRK plays this card, it will be only after all others have been played.

 For the US, in a worst-case scenario, if Trump is faced with ultimate DPRK regime refusal to go quietly into the dustbin of history, his impulse to ‘win’ may impel the US into a catastrophic conflict on the Korean peninsula for the second time.

But this time it would be a conflict that extends to Hawaii and/or the US Mainland.

Couple that with a trade war with China - in which China withdraws as a player in the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Operations at a time when Trump’s tax ‘reforms’ and spiralling war costs cause the US budget to implode - and the result is a perfect storm that does the opposite of MAGA (Make America Great Again).

As for Kim Jong-un, he has previously been warned (see ATI June 2017) that his pursuit of nuclear and missile programmes to intimidate the US could parallel Imperial German attempts to deter Britain by building a high seas fleet that did, indeed, attract Britain’s attention - but in a most undesirable way.

North Korean propaganda videos depicting the destruction of Washington DC have indeed cemented North Korea onto the US strategic radar screen (perhaps ‘gunsights’ might be more appropriate).

Kim may now be ruing his propaganda department’s ‘success.’

As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for. You might just get it!.