Trump and Kim Upend Diplomatic Protocol

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Quote of the week:

“Americans, being a moral people, want their foreign policy to reflect the values we espouse as a nation. But Americans, being a practical people, also want their foreign policy to be effective.” ― George P. Shultz

When the ice begins to thaw after an endless freeze, expect the unexpected. Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have upended diplomatic protocol. Trump isn’t supposed to summarily agree to a meeting between heads of state without careful preparation and assured benefits. Otherwise, we are told, he’ll be giving away something of great value only to deeply regret the photo opportunity. And Kim isn’t supposed to voluntarily give up something Washington wants in advance of a summit, especially after Trump’s unilateral concession.

Forget about it. Trump aspires to accomplish feats that eluded his predecessors. He consulted himself – his most trusted and knowledgeable adviser – and agreed to meet Kim seconds after the invitation to meet with him was proffered, via Seoul. And then Kim volunteers the cessation of nuclear testing and the flight-testing of intercontinental- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. What could have been a productive, successful result from their first summit has been lined up beforehand.

Go figure: It’s as if Trump and Kim are both disciples of Charles Osgood, a Yale-trained psychologist who proposed graduated, reciprocal reductions of tension, or GRIT, in An Alternative to War or Surrender (1962) during the dark days of the Cold War. Having pre-set the terms of a successful summit by separate but parallel initiatives, what do Trump and Kim do for an encore?

More of the same would be helpful, but new steps, like those already pledged, won’t deter skeptics who haven’t missed a beat over Kim’s pre-emptive concessions. The North Korean test site, we are told, has been so brutalized as to be unusable, so this isn’t much of a concession. (Never mind that new tunnels for testing could be bored out at a new test site.) Kim’s voluntary suspension of missile flight tests could be reversed quickly and does not include ballistic missiles of shorter range that greatly concern America’s allies – a clever trap designed to split Washington from Tokyo and Seoul.

When it comes to nuclear proliferation, good news, just as bad news, generates worries. I’d rather worry about the good news. Previous deals struck between U.S. presidents and the Kims have come undone because alternative routes to key outcomes (e.g., plutonium vs. highly enriched uranium for bomb making and space launches to substitute for ballistic missile launches) have not been explicitly blocked by the agreements reached and because U.S. administrations have walked away instead of seeking to close loopholes.

Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula remains the ultimate goal, and verifiably capping all routes increasing the size of the North Korean stockpile remains an essential way station. In the near term, two loopholes stand out, requiring the prohibition of construction of new tunnels for the purpose of nuclear testing at new locations, and the suspension of shorter-range ballistic missile testing.

What additional steps are achievable at a summit depends on Kim’s motivation. The punditariat hasn’t read him well. He is as mysterious and impatient as Gorbachev was when he started behaving well beyond expectations. What additional steps are achievable at a summit also depends on Trump’s attitude toward rewards. Will he be able to see his way clear to demonstrate more GRIT? The alternative – to double down on sanctions because they seem to be working – would be less politically risky. Knowing when to ease up is the hard part.

Would Kim stay the course if Trump walks away from the Iran nuclear deal? If so, he is more needy than we suspect. If not, he can place the onus squarely on Trump for messing up not one, but two opportunities to slow down and halt the most worrisome cases of nuclear proliferation.

Michael Krepon is the Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on April 24, 2018. 

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