Thursday, June 14, 2018

2018 Trump-Kim: Happy to Eat a Nothingburger

The Summit Has Come To Pass.

This happened.

... and I have two minds.

First of all, has the world ever breathed a bigger sigh of relief simply because "Oh good. He didn't fuck it up"? Recency bias being what it is, probably, but I can't think of when.

I've followed a lot of the hot takes on Twitter, only to have trouble finding them back again, but they basically boil down to kind of Robert E Kelly's "This is a bad idea" take here, all in one place on the thread reader app. Click on the tweets to read the whole thread.

also here on Twitter:

or Ask A Korean's "let's go with it" view:

or click on this one for a more detailed 14-part tweet thread.

Going back to my previous post on this, where I talked about what would be a positive sign of substantive change, and what would mostly be window-dressing, most of what happened at the summit was on Tier one: could be window-dressing. We will need to wait and see what is borne out in ground-level negotiations before we can say whether this process was a success.


Given how erratic and impulsive Trump is, as evidenced amply by the fact he picked a fight with CANADA the weekend before his North Korea summit, and has managed to invent a new style of diplomacy that will be named after him as his legacy: Trumpism, meaning "Burn Down Every International Relationship"... I'm perfectly happy for that to have been the main outcome.


The main points of the Trump-Kim agreement were as follows:

1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.

2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

That is... very thin. Not much there at all. This summit was mostly just theatre, but given that the other possible outcome could have been for Trump to do another Justin Trudeau on Kim, insulting him, offending him, and then trying to bully him, I'm glad they went for a photo op.

On the other side, if Kim had come to grapple, to talk brass tacks, checkpoints and details, the laziness, ignorance and arrogance of Donald "Preparing all my life" Trump would have resulted in Kim Jong-un eating his lunch. That he opted for a puff of air, effectively punting negotiations to lower level diplomats and bureaucrats who know the terrain, is not far from the best possible outcome I could have expected.

The danger of a head-of-state summit is that it is one huge point of failure, and if it fails at that point, the failure could be spectacular and (moreover) calamitous. Starting with working-level talks and tacking a summit on at the end makes more sense because there are more points where negotiations might stall, but also more incentive to work them out: the process is more robust and after all that work, it's more likely both parties will adhere to whatever is agreed. Trump-Kim is putting the grunt work AFTER the photo-op instead of before. Then, if negotiations stutter, the risk that one of the heads of state will walk away as a way of saving face is higher, and they have already gained as much political capital as they probably will from the talks anyway: they have less to lose walking away now, photo-op photos in hand, than if they had failed to achieve a summit in the first place, and never got that photo-op and world media coverage.

Who wins?

Trump gets to claim a win that's actually just a puff of air.

Kim Jong-un gets a huge legitimacy boost as the North Korean leader who got the US President to the table for a one on one, and hasn't given up anything they haven't already promised. His domestic legitimacy -- and let's never underestimate how important it is for him to maintain his domestic legitimacy -- is as high as it'll ever be, and he needs to have consolidated power to bring North Korea to the negotiating table like this.

The prospect of a nuclear war remains on the wane, as North Korea continues to signal a willingness to deal, or at least stretch out these conversations as long as they can. So South Koreans win.

The process: If my guess about Kim Jong-un is right -- that he wants to be the leader who brings North Korea in a new direction -- this process will be going on for a while. Incremental changes are the only way he can do this without unleashing domestic chaos, because North Korea needs a lot of work before its infrastructure is ready to compete in the global economy. Strategically, North Korea hasn't yet received the kinds of non-aggression assurances or relaxation of sanctions they are angling for, but we are also pretty far from having unassailable proof that North Korea is acting in good faith. They have gone back on enough promises in the past that they have to earn that trust.

However, the incentives still line up, and as I said in my last blog, North Korea's negotiating position will never be better than it is right now. I hope they realize that. They have smart people there. If I can know that, they must, right? Right?

North Korea still has an advantage over USA and South Korea, in the long, long run, because Kim Jong-un doesn't have to run for reelection, and has no term limit, so he can set up a ten or twenty-year strategy a lot more easily than South Korea or USA can, where every presidential and mid-term election might upend what policies and strategies are viable.

Who loses?

South Korean conservatives look pretty stupid now, for letting North Korea improve its weapons capabilities on their watch by refusing to engage, and then for opposing a set of talks and meetings that so far look promising. They seem to have been punished in South Korea's local elections this week, as the ruling party has had an overwhelming victory.

The biggest loser far and away, though, are North Korean political prisoners and the victims of the totalitarian dictatorship. All the talk so far has been about the security or diplomacy situation in North Korea, and vis a vis North and South Korea. The fact North Korean freedom of speech and press is bottom three in the world, the unknown number of people in political prisons, and those whose lives are touched by rampant corruption, poor infrastructure, and so forth... well relief for ordinary North Koreans has made less than a ripple in all the media coverage I've seen.

And an agreement like the Trump-Kim agreement, characterized this way by Rob York on twitter

Buys everybody more time to sort through a lot of touchy issues and compromises. That's good, because there's a lot to sort through. It's also good to have punted that stuff to working level diplomats who know the issues better than heads of state do.

But by this point, if the media had shifted the focus a bit, Doctors without Borders could be moving into North Korea and assessing situations, vaccinating kids, reaching out to vulnerable populations, setting up clinics... but they're not. Destroying nuclear testing sites is one kind of good-faith gesture, but getting medical aid to North Korea's people is another, and one that is a no-brainer. There are touchier areas that we could be closer to broaching as well: human rights inspectors, prison camps... don't get me wrong, I'm glad we are farther from a nuclear calamity than we were last December, but if Kim Jong-un wants to sell this opening to his domestic population, opening the border to aid and rights groups might appear more substantive to them than widely circulated photos of him with the US president.

What's ahead

My biggest hope remains pegged on South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who has demonstrated the ability to manage both Kim and Trump adeptly. I predict that Moon and his people will work on getting involved in the working level processes and setting up checkpoints, and keeping Trump in the loop, flattered enough to go along with things, while not involved in the day-to-day discussions. I also think this is the best possible path. North and South Korea have the most to gain and the most to lose from this process, and Moon and Kim seem like the natural choice to get on with proceedings. Moon has most of his five-year presidential term ahead of him still, so he can accomplish a lot, and his legitimacy as a leader is sky-high, as his approval rating is just bonkers right now. This is his moment, and if he can use it, the future of the peninsula might be different. And as I said in the paragraph above, I'd sure be happy if some of the first steps on the roadmap they negotiate would involve getting different kinds of humanitarian help to the North Koreans who need it. So far Kim Jong-un hasn't given up anything that actually hurt to give up, and the main thing the US has given is intangible: the prestige/legitimization/status of meeting a US president one on one is now in the past, and cannot be taken back.

Yes, guarded optimism remains the rule of the day. Yes, denuclearization remains a sticking point, and yes, I'd like to see NK pass a few checkpoints along the pathway, and I'd like to see a roadmap with time-specific targets, and a few of those targets being met, before I'm really convinced that they've changed their direction. Go back to my tiers of hopefulness lists in the "looking forward" section of this blog post for the brass tacks, but... a Trump-Kim summit that wasn't a disaster is another step toward getting things worked out for real.

Be nice in the comments, and feel free to share links! I'm very interested in informed, interesting and unique takes on what's happening.

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