U.S.-North Korea relations: 'The only dialogue that matters'

Trump's intense personalization of the 70-year conflict creates new risks in a relationship historically fraught with violence, misunderstanding and outright deceit.

Trump, Kim sign 'very important' document at historic U.S.-North Korea summit, June 12, 2018 (Reuters)
WASHINGTON - On Twitter, in letters and in person with Kim Jong Un in Singapore on Tuesday, Donald Trump made clear his belief that the fate of North Korea hinges on a personal relationship between the two men.
"It is the only dialogue that matters," Trump wrote to Kim late last month. "Of those alive today, only a small number will leave a lasting impact– and only the very few will make decisions or take actions that renew their homeland and change the course of history," his White House repeated in a propaganda video presented to Kim on an iPad at their first meeting.
"Two men. Two leaders. One destiny," the reel continued, over footage of Trump and Kim waving from on high.
Trump's intense personalization of the 70-year conflict creates new risks in a relationship historically fraught with violence, misunderstanding and outright deceit. The mercurial US president took an initial liking to the North Korean despot at the landmark Singapore summit, but touch and feel will not verify the complex task of denuclearizing the totalitarian state, in whole or in part.
That task will come down to dialogue among lesser men, including scientific experts deep in the weeds on nuclear policy. No such experts were present in Singapore, where the discussion was far broader than non-proliferation, and instead focused on the general path Pyongyang wishes to take for its people.
Understanding that the survival of the Kim regime has, for decades, relied on a credible nuclear deterrent, Trump hopes to offer it a comprehensive alternative: A fundamental shift in relations that will enrich his country and protect the Kim family. This was all the Singapore summit really accomplished.
Both sides stated their commitment "to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity" and to "join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula."
The Trump administration is suggesting the DPRK, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, model its future on paths taken by Singapore in the 1960s, Deng Xiaoping's China in the 1970s and Russia under perestroika in the 1980s, in which closed authoritarian systems opened up under contiguous leadership (with less success in Russia, where the Soviet Union ultimately fell to a kleptocratic system run by the same network of men).
Critics fear that Pyongyang is a more difficult case. They believe that proposing open markets in North Korea is like having a submarine open its hatch for fresh air: the legitimacy of the government, one of the most repressive in modern history, relies on keeping the country hermetically sealed.
Many in Washington expressed concern on Wednesday that Trump has put so little emphasis on the monumental task of verifying North Korean denuclearization.
Republican lawmakers such as Senators Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, called for "open eyes" and "concrete accomplishments" after Trump left the island nation with a vague commitment to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, which in the past has been language used by Pyongyang as a diplomatic euphemism for a withdrawal of US forces from South Korea and, more generally, of the US nuclear umbrella protecting Seoul and Tokyo.
Trump and Kim's joint statement does not parse those details, nor does it commit Pyongyang to any steps that it has not vowed to take in negotiations past, including in 1994, 2004 or in 2012, under three different presidents.
So far, the Trump administration has set out only two technical standards for an acceptable non-proliferation agreement– and they were in regards to the program not in North Korea, but in Iran. Pulling out of the 2015 international nuclear deal with the Iranians last month, Trump said he would settle for nothing short of Tehran's complete and permanent dismantlement of its entire nuclear enrichment infrastructure– and carte blanche access for international inspectors to sites throughout the country in order to verify compliance.
Iran had agreed to round-the-clock monitoring of its declared nuclear facilities. But if UN nuclear watchdogs sought entry into an Iranian military site, suspecting illegal nuclear work was taking place there, they would have had to go through an international dispute mechanism that would take a minimum of 24 days to process.
Critics of the deal called this an unacceptable black hole for inspectors, who thus could not possibly verify Iranian compliance, and insisted on snap access to all of Iran's military facilities– a red line for Tehran, which called it a breach of their sovereignty.
Will Trump demand the same standard in his negotiations with the North Koreans, insisting that Pyongyang offer inspectors historically invasive access to its military facilities?
The North's program is far larger than Iran's ever was– spread over 100 sites throughout the country, many of them unverified by the CIA– and is, unlike the Iranian program, integrally woven into the nation's military. There is no guise that the program has a civilian nuclear purpose as there was in Iran.
And given the size and scope of Pyongyang's program, will Trump also demand an agreement with them include the removal of all nuclear weapons material, including research, development, and raw materials, and does not include any "sunset clauses" on the resumption of enrichment work? If so, what is he willing to concede in exchange? Will he then withdraw the 29,000 US troops out of South Korea that have served as a guarantor for the ally against post-war Japan, North Korea, and now a rising China over 68 years?
Trump has already spoken of his willingness to concede on all major points of interest to the North Koreans– as DPRK state-run media highlighted in their coverage of the summit on Wednesday– but has not detailed his own red lines, what he refuses to give up, and what exactly he expects of the North Koreans. And Kim, for his part, has offered no specificity.
"I think, can you ensure anything?" Trump asked himself, pressed by reporters how he would know if he was being played by the Kim government. "Can I ensure that you’re going to be able to sit down properly when you sit down?  I mean, you can’t ensure anything."
"All I can say is they want to make a deal," he added. "That’s what I do. My whole life has been deals."