Trump, North Korea and Conventional Wisdom
In the last few weeks we have heard little about North Korea and the potential meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Since the invitation to meet was verbal and came from Kim through a South Korean intermediary, conventional wisdom seems to be that nothing is happening, and Kim may not have really made the invite in the first place.
But there are any number of other assumptions and conclusions over the past few decades that have become accepted by the establishment and the media. That’s why they call it conventional wisdom. To name a few:
North Korea is and has been led by ideological maniacs whose goal has always been to unify the Peninsula under their rule and who see nuclear weapons as the guarantor.
Several U.S. administrations have been snookered by clever North Korea negotiators who took our concessions and continued to cheat on developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology.
A war with North Korea is unthinkable because it would result in the destruction of South Korean cities and hundreds of thousands of casualties.
China’s worst nightmare is North Korean refugees.
Sanctions against North Korea can’t work because Kim doesn’t care about starving his people.
Trump doesn’t know what he is doing and will have circles run around him by the devious and brilliant 35-year-old running North Korea who just wants to create delay to finish his nuke program.
There is no way that the U.S. can be prepared for a North Korean discussion by May because there are far too many details that the establishment must work out in advance.
Trump will give away the ranch just to get a deal.
North Korea is the single biggest foreign policy challenge of the century (which must be true because Barack Obama told Trump it was so).
But what if that conventional wisdom is wrong? And if so, what does that mean for the potential negotiations? Let’s look at all this from the perspective of any other negotiation.
There are hundreds of books that have been written about negotiating methods and tactics. I’ve been doing deals for four decades and have at one time or another used most of them. But that’s not at the heart of what negotiations are all about. At the tree-top level, negotiations are about being brutally honest with yourself about what you want to accomplish and what you can’t abide; doing as much research as possible to get as much insight as you can on the same thing for your counterparty; and then designing steps to get more of the former than the latter.
This can lead to as much detail as you wish, but without coming to grips with the big-picture aspects first, there is no compass to guide the process, and you are likely to fail.
Through administrations dating back to Ronald Reagan and up to the current one, negotiations with North Korea have followed a familiar pattern. North Korea makes noise about progress on nuclear weapons; the U.S. says that is not acceptable; high-level discussions ensue involving hordes of State Department diplomats; detailed negotiations proceed over months with serious effort on every issue down to the shape of the table; agreements are reached and publicized as evidence of the brilliant U.S. diplomatic skills; war is avoided; North Korea agrees to back away from nukes; and the U.S. agrees to shower North Korea with goodies.
After a sufficient pause, North Korea cheats on the agreement, pocketing the goodies, continuing to develop a nuke program, and the U.S. pretends to be “shocked” that anything like this could happen.
The media reports that North Korea has won again, and the U.S. has failed, but is that true? Perhaps the U.S. administrations knew exactly what was likely to happen, and it served their purposes beautifully. Rather than a failure, it was all part of the plan. Everyone knew North Korea was nowhere near nuke capability, and it was easier to bribe it with the fiction of eliminating the nukes in return for goodies than actually solve the problem.
North Korea wasn’t enough of a threat to be worth the trouble of making sure the nuke program disappeared. It then went on radio silence for awhile, and all was forgotten … until the cycle repeated itself. North Korea “won” in the sense that it gave up nothing and obtained things like food and fuel to keep the folks in line and money, caviar and Jaguars to keep the ruling class happy.
It was actually in China’s best interest to have this dance continue. As long as North Korea was still some time away from nukes, having the U.S. bogged down dealing with it diverted attention away from what China was doing in the region. Conventional wisdom also held that China’s biggest concern was a war on the Peninsula that would lead to millions of North Korean refugees pouring into China. But China read the U.S. correctly in that, up until now, threats of military action were hollow at best and war was a long shot. So China was able to even help North Korea with its nuke program and control its progress, cheat on the deals, and avoid meaningful sanctions, all without any real risk — until now.
Back to the big picture. What if North Korea couldn’t care less about unifying the Peninsula and only really wanted to live by the credo that it’s good to be king? What if the nuke program had little to do with guaranteeing leverage in the unification process and was only the best bargaining chip to keep the goodies flowing? That has profound implications for how to steer the upcoming negotiations. What is different this time? Several things, perhaps some of them unintended.
First and most importantly, North Korea may have gone too far with its nuke progress and is beginning to understand what that means. As long as it represents no real threat, everyone could kick the can down the road, and it really didn’t matter if North Korea cheated. A few billion in goodies was a small price to pay for the sleight of hand. But Trump has been left without a chair by Obama and everyone before him as the music appears ready to stop.
The U.S. has no choice except to stop and dismantle the North Korean nuke program before it reaches critical mass of weapons and delivery capability that could threaten us. That is a Trump red line that is entirely believable. Trump has recognized this, and say what you will about his communication methods with Kim, but he seems to have convinced North Korea that he is deadly serious about preventing the red line from being crossed.
As to Obama’s claim that North Korea is the biggest foreign policy issue, that is one of the great head fakes of our time, probably intended to take Trump’s attention off Iran. The truth is that while there certainly would be risks in the region if military action were taken, the U.S. could turn the entire country of North Korea into a parking lot in minutes — far more quickly than anything North Korea could do preemptively, and Kim knows it. The only jump ball is whether the U.S. has the will to do it if the risks crossed the line.
Kim and his predecessors understood that, until now, the U.S. would avoid military action at all costs. Trump is different and has given Kim pause. He has injected a credible military threat and has enacted sanctions (with unprecedented China support) to the point that Kim and his ruling class cadres are getting antsy. What good is it to be king if the caviar stops flowing?
It is entirely possible that Kim sent the invitation to Trump because he has realized that further progress on his nukes will actually increase the likelihood of his being destroyed, not provide guarantees of security, because Trump actually means it. He might also be coming to the conclusion that even if he kept going with the nuke program and Trump didn’t follow through with military action, the sanctions would stop not just the caviar but everything else, which would eventually put him at risk of being overthrown.
If even close to true, this sets up a clear set of win-win negotiating parameters, and if nothing else, Trump has unusually good negotiating instincts. Realizing this state of play may have been the main reason he so quickly accepted the invite to meet.
If the parameters are kept to the tree-top basics — such as trading the total dismantling of the North Korean nuke program with extraordinarily strict verification protocols for security guarantees and goodie flows — there is a shot at reaching a deal. Forget things like the shape of the table, location for the meeting, human rights violations or even if the U.S. is giving Kim head-of-state recognition without advance work. That’s State Department process mush. If a one-on-one meeting gets clarity, who cares? If not, we are no worse off.
Take Kim’s yes for an answer that he is prepared to put the denuclearization of the Peninsula on the table in return for security/goodies, and don’t get distracted by extraneous issues. Kim may believe he can repeat the process his predecessors used, play Trump, and stall for time. But it doesn’t take weeks to find out if he is for real or not. Take the lead, put the fundamental trade on the table, and demand a concrete, immediate response. You don’t need months of prep for that. If it fails, at least the world will know that Kim isn’t serious. The military option is still on the table, and the key players will have more difficulty opposing enhanced sanctions.
At the end, a military solution, particularly a preemptive one, may be the only option, and Trump needs to continue to keep that threat credible. The only reason there is a chance at results is that Trump has played hardball on all fronts, and the key parties are sufficiently rattled that he means it. It’s possible that Kim has had a case of enlightened self-interest that has dented his own conventional wisdom about the role of nukes and is sincere about waving the white flag.
By staying with the May time frame and limiting the agenda to the big picture, we will know soon enough. North Korea is not nearly the foreign policy threat that Iran is, and Iran is paying close attention to what is happening. If there is a shot at putting North Korea in a box, undermining China’s regional strategy, and sending a message to Iran, Trump should run with it.