Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Trump, Kim and the Art of the (Non) Deal

Note:  I will be in South Korea in July attending and speaking at two conferences.  One is on the 70th anniversary of the South Korean Constitution and it is sponsored by the National Assembly.  The other conference is sponsored by the South Korean Election Commission.

What are we to make of the Trump-Kim summit?  It was far less than meets the eye from  a global standpoint, although it was terrific theater for Trump and Kim.  However, the real winner was North Korea (Democratic Republic of North Korea or DPRK) while the United States got little, and US allies such as South Korea and Japan even less.

The summit was never destined to accomplish much.  Good summits require advanced planning and often there are a lot of agreements reached in advanced such that the actual summit is really a photo op that is the culmination of what had been already scripted.  Thus, summits are deals plus public.  Here one got all publicity and no deals–all show and no substance.

The summit had the potential to be a major break through and it still might to lead to something.  Having the two leaders engage in a dialogue may in itself be important, but s of now nothing.  No agreements on cultural exchanges, opening up of diplomatic offices, or anything else.  Compared to other major first meetings–Nixon and Mao in 1972–little was accomplished.

But this summit was never really about improving US-DPRK relations, it was about Kim and Trump.  For Kim, he wins domestically by showing his people he can stand equally with the president of United States.  Be a bad boy, produce a nuclear bomb, and you get what you want.  His position is strengthened domestically by this summit.  Internationally, Kim shows how a country can get what it wants if it goes nuclear and defies international law and rules.

Trump gets his ego stroked.  Domestically he gets to claim his threats drove Kim to the bargaining table.  He gets to argue for the 2018 elections that his way works and playing the bad boy and ignoring the G7, allies, or multilaterialism works.  Trump also gets lots of media coverage.

The meeting between the two leaders alone was historic and significant.  What the new relations between the two countries  mean is yet to be determined.  If the new relationship is bilateral then it is fragile at best. By that, if the security agreements only address US-DPRK needs and fail to address concerns of Japan, South Korea, China, and the Russian Federation, I am not sure what will result.  By that, the US seems to have agreed with DPRK to halt military games with South Korea.  This may make DPRK feel more secure but it is not clear how it addresses security needs for South Korea or even Japan, and it is not clear the US really got anything out of the deal.  Trump wanted a deal to say he got a deal, but if deals involve trading something of value to get something of value, the U got nothing.  Trump trades away US, South Korean and regional security needs to that he can say he got something.  But it is not clear how it addresses larger regional needs.  Moreover, this would not be the first time the DPRK has agreed to things only to cheat.  The art of this deal showed the limits or weaknesses in Trump’s negotiating skills, unless the art was something for him and not the US or the rest of the world.

Will the halt of US-South Korean joint military exercises address DPRK’s security needs?  The claim that North Korea felt insecure in part was always false, used as a prompt for its leaders to justify their regime.  During the Cold War there was no real chance the US was going to attack it, and even after it the US was never going to attack for fear of engaging China and Russia.  In addition, the DPRK came to the table both because it had nuclear capabilities and felt it had a position of strength from which to bargain, and because of economic needs.  In light of the US cancelling the nuclear agreement with Iran, it is difficult to see what kind of security assurances DPRK would want in exchange for giving up it nuclear capabilities.  In turn, if the US were to agree to remove all troops from South Korea it leaves that country with real security concerns.

Overall, the non-deal struck between Kim and Trump does less than the two leaders or the media think.

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