President Donald Trump’s initial leverage with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when they first met has now been lost. It is not a result of his own actions.
While Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory came as a surprise to many Americans, it also caught our friends and enemies off guard. Kim expected a Hillary Clinton win, which would bring him a four-to-eight year continuation of Barack Obama’s failed “strategic patience” foreign policy, allowing Pyongyang to continue making great gains in its nuclear and missile programs. Clinton was a known quantity; Trump, however, was not. He was a “wild card” whose independence would allow him to pressure Kim to abandon these programs.
This “Trump Factor” was obviously of concern as well to China’s Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. While the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has never been consistently cordial, it took a turn for the worse under Kim, who came to power in 2011. In 2017, Kim ordered the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who was under China’s protection, fearing China was nurturing his half-brother as a pawn should Beijing want Kim Jong-un removed.
But with the Trump Factor in play, Xi made it clear fences needed to be mended. Kim made his first trip outside North Korea as its leader, secretly meeting with Xi in Beijing in March 2018. Its purpose was to focus on how best to deal with Trump. The seriousness with which both leaders took the Trump Factor was reflected by the fact they held a second meeting in Dalian, a coastal resort city, just two months later, before Kim and Trump held their historic June 2018 meeting in Singapore. This was followed by a third Kim/Xi meeting later that month in Beijing.
While the Trump Factor was an unexpected element impacting U.S.-North Korea relations, ever since the 1953 end of the Korean War, Pyongyang — to advance its position on the peninsula and, in more recent years, to further its nuclear and missile programs — has embraced the following philosophies:
- First, entering into arms control negotiations in 1985, it has signed agreements giving the appearance of a “kinder, gentler” North Korea with no intention of fully honoring them.
- Once embarked upon its nuclear program, it became a badge of honor for the Kim family and its military leaders. De-nuclearization is not, and never will be, a viable option for Kim as it would result in him losing face with his military.
- Fruitful negotiations for Pyongyang have always involved surrendering something of little value (such as returning the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War) for something of much greater value (such as lifting sanctions against North Korea).
- Embracing the policy “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” Pyongyang has, whenever possible, tried to undermine the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
- As far as making a substantive de-nuclearization effort, North Korea has adopted a policy of delay, delay, delay. While on occasion this has caused it to discontinue nuclear and missile testing, that can always be quickly re-started. Rarely has Pyongyang made a truly meaningful sacrifice.
Kim has two initiatives going in his favor at this time: one south of the DMZ, the other in the U.S.
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in is to North Korea what Obama was to Iran. Despite the hatred Iran harbored against the U.S., Obama built his legacy upon negotiating a terribly one-sided nuclear deal favoring the mullahs, in a naïve effort to establish his own legacy. Moon seeks to do the same with North Korea. Both Iran and North Korea have track records of not honoring international agreements. Thus, any agreement involving the U.S. and South Korea should demand substantial initial action by North Korea to demonstrate its seriousness about de-nuclearization.
Despite the U.S. and South Korea already making major concessions — the former by suspending joint military training exercises with Seoul and the latter by removing weapons and guard stations in Panmunjom located in the DMZ — Pyongyang has done little of substance. While Pyongyang has also removed its weapons and guard stations in Panmunjom, the cost to it is minor. North Korea is known to have dug several invasion tunnels stretching under the DMZ from North to South to bypass the South’s defenses. These tunnels are huge, not only allowing tanks to pass through but an estimated 30,000 soldiers per hour. While four of the tunnels have been discovered — one only 32 miles from Seoul — it is estimated there are many more. A true indicator of Kim’s “peaceful” intentions would be his disclosure of the locations of the other tunnels.
Back in the U.S., Kim takes comfort in knowing a new Democratic Party majority in the House spells trouble for Trump, jockeying for his impeachment or otherwise distracting him from the North Korea de-nuclearization problem.
Kim undoubtedly now believes, as Xi has probably coached him, he can simply wait out a Trump presidency.
This is evident as, unlike prior to Kim’s first meeting with Trump when he was running scared, he has returned to making outrageous demands. During a televised New Year’s speech, Kim said he is open to meeting with Trump in 2019 but warned the U.S. (falsely) against continuing “ to break its promises,” misjudging his “patience by unilaterally demanding certain things” like pushing “ahead with sanctions and pressure.” He says there will be no denuclearization by Pyongyang absent removal of the U.S. threat on the peninsula — i.e., the withdrawal of U.S. forces there. Meanwhile, he plays Moon for a fool, sounding a nationalistic call for stronger inter-Korean cooperation. Having disappointed our Middle East allies by withdrawing from Syria, Kim is encouraged to make this demand.
Trump may believe he knows “The Art of the Deal,” but in negotiating with Pyongyang, it is not a simple matter of “Deal or No Deal.” Rather, from Pyongyang’s point of view, it is deal but no deal, supported by its track record. Every generation of North Korea’s Kim dynasty has learned concessions can always be extracted from those longing for peace on the peninsula by those not interested in it.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.