WASHINGTON, DC — U.S. President Donald Trump “may have avoided getting entrapped into a bad deal” by refusing to accept dictator Kim Jong-un’s scant denuclearization offer in exchange for major sanctions relief at the second unprecedented summit with North Korea earlier this year, a renowned expert on negotiations with the rogue regime told lawmakers Tuesday.
Dr. Victor Cha, who served in the George W. Bush White House and is now the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), testified before the Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific alongside Kelly Magsamen from the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP).
Both experts discussed U.S. policy towards North Korea following the second summit that failed to convince the regime to take credible steps towards the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions and security guarantees.
The two unprecedented meetings between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader — at Singapore in June 2018 and in Vietnam in late February 2019 — failed to deliver an agreement on denuclearization.
Moreover, Cha and Magsamen determined North Korea has continued its nuclear activities despite the negotiations, echoing recent U.S. intelligence assessments. Both experts, however, conceded the Trump administration’s economic pressure campaign is having an impact on the negotiations, citing Kim’s insistence on getting sanctions relief. The two experts believe the sanctions have granted the Trump administration “leverage” in the U.S.-North Korea talks.
Despite acknowledging that the economic pressure campaign on Kim is bearing fruit, the CAP expert urged the Trump administration in her written testimony to “explore what limited sanctions relief might support an interim agreement without necessarily removing leverage.”
“I want to be clear at the outset that I am a strong supporter of diplomacy with North Korea, but I want to also be clear that I think the Administration is doing it wrong,” Magsamen stated.
The president indeed may have avoided getting entrapped into a bad deal at Hanoi. What North Korea put on the table in terms of the Yongbyon nuclear complex is a fraction of their growing nuclear program that does not even break the surface of their underlying arsenal and stockpiles of fissile materials, not to mention missile bases and delivery systems.
And what they sought in return, in terms of major sanctions relief on five UN Security Council resolutions that target ninety percent of their trade, would have removed one of the primary sources of leverage, albeit imperfect, on the regime. In this instance, no deal was better than a bad deal.
Dictator Kim has reportedly offered to demolish the Yongbyon nuclear plant and other facilities for making nuclear-bomb fuel. Nevertheless, Kim has continued to enrich uranium at the plant following his first summit with Trump last June.
Trump expressed disappointment at reports of ongoing missile and potential nuclear activity in North Korea.
Consistent with Cha’s position, the CAP expert noted, “In the case of the Hanoi summit, many of us were worried about the possibility of a bad deal. The good news is that this did not happen. The bad news is that the way forward is now deeply uncertain and full of risks.”
Both Dr. Cha and Magsamen noted that the Hanoi summit had left the United States with an uncertain road ahead on the ongoing menace posed by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, considered by the American military to be one of the top threats facing the United States.
“When leaders’ summits fail to reach [an] agreement, diplomacy by definition has reached the end of its rope…the failed summit leaves a great deal of uncertainty going forward,” Cha noted.
Unlike his predecessors, President Trump has refused to budge an inch on sanctions relief, vowing to maintain economic pressure on the regime until it takes steps towards denuclearization.
Before the first summit in Singapore, the administration made it clear the U.S. president was prepared to “walk away” if presented with a bad deal. In the wake of the second meeting with Kim, Trump said, “Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times.”
Magsamen from the liberal CAP think-tank urged the Trump administration to agree to “temporary and proportional sanctions relief’ for North Korea, adding:
It will be important to ensure that UN sanctions that deal directly with North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs remain in place. However, the Administration can look to temporary and proportional sanctions relief – through waivers and exemptions — with built-in snap-back provisions to incentivize North Korea to not just take but sustain increasingly meaningful steps.
She urged the administration to model its agreement after former President Barack Obama’s failed Iran nuclear pact, from which Trump pulled the United States out, arguing that it was not working.
Echoing the CAP expert, Cha told lawmakers he does not think the uncertainty generated by the summits “will mean a return to the ‘fire and fury’ days of 2017 when armed conflict was possible.”
In August 2017, Trump threatened to take military action against North Korea if it endangered the United States.
Magsamen told the Senate panel on Tuesday:
After two U.S.-North Korea summits in Singapore and Hanoi, North Korea still has upwards of 60 nuclear weapons and is continuing to accumulate fissile material to make more. It retains the ballistic missile capability to threaten Hawaii, Alaska, the West Coast, and of course, our ally Japan and has proven the capability to range most of the continental United States.
And North Korea retains a conventional capacity to put South Korea at unacceptable risk. In sum, the threat has not changed. …And while better than the days of “fire and fury,” this problem is not going to be solved through reality TV episodes. It’s going to take deliberate, integrated and coherent interagency effort in close partnership with the international community.
Both Cha and Magsamen noted that the U.S. must include human rights in the ongoing negotiations, acknowledging that the Trump administration has taken some steps to apply pressure on the regime regarding human rights.
“Human rights continue to be neglected in the administration’s summit diplomacy with North Korea… It is impossible for U.S. denuclearization diplomacy to succeed without integration of the human rights issue,” the CSIS expert told lawmakers.