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Read the Trump-Kim Memorandum–the Devil is in the Details

The Singapore summit between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was quite a spectacle, but the show the two leaders put on produced virtually nothing of substance. If we judge this summit the way we would judge a high-level meeting held by any other president, it’s clear that it failed to deliver what the administration wanted. This wasn’t a great accomplishment for the president, though he has a strong incentive to present it that way and continue on the diplomatic track for now. Despite its disappointment, however, if the summit is followed up by productive negotiations, it could still reduce tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.

The consensus among Korea and arms control experts is that the statement [1] that the Singapore summit produced was not nearly as comprehensive or specific as previous agreements with North Korea. That much is indisputable. There was no specific commitment by Pyongyang to get rid of its nuclear weapons, much less its entire nuclear program; no mention of rejoining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and no reference to ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Nothing about North Korea’s missile program appears in the text. There is also nothing about verification. If the purpose of the summit was to make progress on disagreements over nuclear weapons and missiles, it didn’t do that at all.

But then this round of U.S.-North Korean negotiations is only just getting started. The decision to hold a high-level meeting first and then hammer out the details later means that the summit could not possibly have produced an agreement as thorough or meaningful as previous negotiations did. Many critics of the summit, myself included, objected to the meeting for just this reason. This was not because we opposed seeking a diplomatic solution to the standoff with North Korea, but because we saw no value in holding a summit at the start of a process instead of reaching an agreement first through detailed negotiations carried out by officials who understand these issues. As it happened, the U.S. delegation lacked the technical experts that it needed to reach a more substantive agreement, and the president made no effort to prepare himself to talk about the technical issues. The critics’ objection that the summit was held too soon appears to have been vindicated.

One pitfall of holding the summit first is that it will give hardliners in the U.S. an opening to sabotage further talks. They will try to use the summit’s lack of substance as proof that all engagement with North Korea is a waste of time. If North Korea committed to nothing concrete and specific in a meeting with the president, they will say, what are the chances that Pyongyang will agree to anything in talks between lower-level officials? We already know that John Bolton believes diplomacy with North Korea is useless, and we should expect him and his ideological allies to be making that point to Trump on a regular basis. If negotiations don’t move along as quickly as the impatient president would like, that could give Bolton his chance to derail the entire process. Hardliners are sure to seize on Trump’s announcement [2] that he is suspending military exercises in South Korea without consulting Seoul as an excuse to undermine the negotiations. Because Trump’s decision seems to be a unilateral concession made without coordinating with allies, it makes it very easy for hardliners within and outside of the administration to use this to discredit engagement as a whole.

The threats to continued diplomacy with North Korea won’t be limited to Republican rejectionists. Several hawkish Senate Democrats have already declared in a grossly irresponsible letter sent before the summit that they are determined to oppose any agreement that falls short an absurdly high standard. Given the choice between supporting diplomatic engagement or sabotaging a high-profile Trump initiative, many partisan opponents may choose the latter regardless of the consequences. That would be a mistake, but it is probably unavoidable given the cynical and partisan nature of Republican opposition to every Obama diplomatic initiative, including Trump’s decision to renege on the nuclear deal with Iran.

That decision seems even more ludicrous now than it did a month ago. When we compare the rigorous verification measures and specific technical requirements in the Iran deal with the generic rhetorical commitments in the Singapore document, the value of the JCPOA as a nonproliferation agreement becomes even harder to ignore. Almost any deal that the Trump administration could realistically negotiate with North Korea will fall far short of the one that he once derided as the worst deal ever.

Our government should never be afraid to talk with its adversaries when it can advance our country’s interests by doing so. Continued diplomatic engagement with North Korea is the right course and the best option available. In order to have any success, however, the administration will need to reduce its demands, lower its expectations, be willing to compromise, and coordinate more closely with South Korea.

Daniel Larison is a senior writer and regular blogger for TAC

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18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Read the Trump-Kim Memorandum–the Devil is in the Details"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On June 12, 2018 @ 10:52 pm

One ‘concession’ that is emerging is that they will have a new reality TV show, called the “Dear Leader Hour” – on cable of course, with a 100% audience share in NK.

#2 Comment By b. On June 13, 2018 @ 12:25 am

“Senate Democrats have already declared in a grossly irresponsible letter sent before the summit that they are determined to oppose any agreement that falls short an absurdly high standard.”

It does make one wonder – where would we be with a President Clinton today, on North Korea, following those tests… or even on Iran?

The Clinton and Obama wings of the Democratic Party – the other half of the biparty establishment – have nothing to say on Saudi Arabia and Israel, they have plenty to say on “Russia!”, and, as Peter van Buren observes here

[3]

regarding “successive administrations” and “advice from [what passes as] the left”, there is no reason to believe that that other half of the biparty would have handled Iran and North Korea any better than they are “handling” Yemen and Gaza. There might even be good reason to expect the opposite.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 13, 2018 @ 7:23 am

Uhhhh,

No. They gave changed the nature of relations with North Korea. Show or not show — they have provided a means of changing the very face of how the two nations go forward. This is not a small deal.

Of course the devil is in the details, absolutely, but it is in effect a fresh start, no doubt with many hurdles yet to cross. I don’t think anyone should be mistaking the simplicity for what is a transformational moment.

I think it is a job well begun and long overdue.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 13, 2018 @ 7:29 am

” Given the choice between supporting diplomatic engagement or sabotaging a high-profile Trump initiative, many partisan opponents may choose the latter regardless of the consequences. That would be a mistake, but it is probably unavoidable given the cynical and partisan nature of Republican opposition to every Obama diplomatic initiative, including Trump’s decision to renege on the nuclear deal with Iran.”

I certainly cannot argue with the above — whatever my distrust of Iran, breaking that agreement was not required or justified without clear evidence of a violation.

#5 Comment By SteveM On June 13, 2018 @ 7:37 am

The Singapore summit between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was quite a spectacle, but the show the two leaders put on produced virtually nothing of substance.

The “substance” of the meeting is an abstraction. Kim had already committed to an existential pivot toward normalization and major economic reform no doubt driven by China earlier in the year. The Trump meeting was a necessary validation of that move. That was the “substance”. The “details” will no doubt follow as part of the larger master plan driven by China, not the U.S.

Again, the massive force driving this scenario as it plays out is Xi/China. Xi wants to put the North Korea problem to bed so that China can focus on the BRI, AIIB, SCO, EAEU initiatives while minimizing the “meddling” of the Global Cop Gorilla.

U.S. hegemony is played. This is China getting its ducks in a row to eclipse the U.S. economically as the U.S. bankrupts itself.

#6 Comment By Pear Conference On June 13, 2018 @ 8:15 am

“I think, honestly, I think he’s going to do these things,” Mr. Trump said. “I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say ‘Hey, I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of excuse.”

#7 Comment By connecticut farmer On June 13, 2018 @ 8:16 am

“Cautious optimism” is the operative phrase…with emphasis on “cautious.” Anyone who thought that anything of substance would have been accomplished based upon one meeting is operating in a dreamland. The mere fact that these two men have even agreed to meet face-to-face after threatening each other with fire and sword only three months before is an accomplishment in itself.

We shall see.

#8 Comment By b. On June 13, 2018 @ 8:50 am

Looks like the details of the memo do not matter a whole lot either way:

North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat, nor is it the “biggest and most dangerous problem” for the United States, President Donald Trump said [..] “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office,” Trump said on Twitter. “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.

U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Trump’s reasoning for halting the exercises was “”ridiculous [..] It’s not a burden onto the American taxpayer to have a forward deployed force in South Korea,” Graham told CNN. “It brings stability. It’s a warning to China that you can’t just take over the whole region.”

[4]

Notice that Graham apparently does not reject the proposition that North Korea is no longer a threat to “the US”, the restraint of not even considering its mere existence as a “threat to US interests”, and the acquiescence with putting military exercises on hold (as well as the observation that our debt-financed military is not a “burden” to the taxpayer).

This is a twofer – governance by twit, *and* loyal opposition. This is performance art, showmanship – it is what Trump does. The GOP is taking the Bush approach to “creating new realities” to a completely substance-free level now.

#9 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 13, 2018 @ 8:59 am

SteveM is right: “The ‘substance’ of the meeting is an abstraction. Kim had already committed to an existential pivot toward normalization and major economic reform no doubt driven by China earlier in the year.”

Mike Whitney agrees and makes this assumption about the substance of Kim’s as yet undisclosed letter to President Trump, hand-delivered to the White House before the Singapore summit:

“We fully intend to accelerate the pace of modernization, integration and market-oriented reforms. How does this fit with our decision to abandon our nuclear weapons? Frankly, our primary business partners– China, Russia and South Korea– all agree that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons only add to regional instability and are an obstacle to further economic integration which requires a broader security umbrella maintained by the more powerful states. We are not and will not shirk our responsibility to provide for our own defense, but regional security requires the harmonizing of interests and obligations. Just as the United States would protect Mexico or Canada from foreign invasion, so too, those responsibilities fall on the larger nuclear-armed powers in the region. We willingly make the concession of giving up our nuclear weapons in order to participate in a broader ‘rules based’ economic coalition that we believe will ensure both our future security and prosperity.”

[5]

#10 Comment By b. On June 13, 2018 @ 9:14 am

More:

Pompeo, who is to lead the U.s. side in talks with North Korea to implement outcomes of the summit, arrived in South Korea [..] to be greeted by General Vincent Brooks, the top U.S. commander in South Korea, and U.S. Charge d’Affaires Marc Knapper.

[J]ust after Trump’s surprise announcement, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea said they had not received any instruction to cease joint military drills. [..] The U.S.-South Korean exercise calendar hits a high point every year with the Foal Eagle and Max Thunder drills, which both wrapped up last month. Another major exercise is due in August…

[4]

The fixer is in. The DoD is playing the “no orders by twit” card as it has before (and rightly so), but unless Trump forgets to sign the papers, their ability to manufacture incidents – see USAF in Syria “hitting the wrong targets” etc. – is limited. Pompeo will have to deliver.

The real question is, does he even want to? We should not forget that the Bush administration was contend to ignore two thirds of their enumerated “evils”, to focus on Iraq – that’s part of the reason for the current North Korea impasse.

Who is to say that the resident warmongers in the Trump administration have not decided that a nuclear rhetoric standoff with North Korea is detrimental to the Iran campaign dear to their desiccated hearts, and is going for a “Statesman” Dodge on North Korea for the time being, so that they can properly focus on their highest “foreign policy” priority – and the least controversial.

After all, Iran does not have nuclear weapons, or even ICBMs capable of reaching the US (yet).

Bonus, a profitable conflagration with Iran could detract (or, in a pinch, explain away) the manufactured famine in Yemen, and also derail the “talks” with North Korea. No reason for Pompeo to engage as a provocateur.

Kim, Trump and Pompeo all benefit from these talks going nowhere productively for quite some time, as long as all participants understand the charade and consider it useful. So we will have to just watch how long Pompeo remains personally involved in the negotiations, before being called upon for a new crisis with Iran, or even in Yemen, and handing the kabuki off to the professional diplomats.

#11 Comment By SteveM On June 13, 2018 @ 9:50 am

Re: Kurt.

Thank you. Here’s an April NY Times article on Kim’s pivot that predates by own inferences:

[6]

North Korea also destroyed a nuclear test site in May ahead of Trump’s visit further suggesting a sea change in NK policy. The apparent default for Kim is a significant reduction in tension between North Korea and the U.S.

The fly in the ointment will be the war-mongers in Washington like Lindsey Graham. Moreover the Trump haters on the Left are already starting to cobble together a nefarious Trump/Kim conspiracy analogous to the bogus Trump/Putin conspiracy as an additional barrier to progress.

Any significant drag on the process will come from Washington rather than Pyongyang. Especially since Beijing is pulling the strings behind the curtain and wants this fixed ASAP.

#12 Comment By SteveM On June 13, 2018 @ 9:59 am

As a related aside, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference is held in the Chinese city of Qingdao this month. This is a piece on the new automated port of Qingdao that CGTN played this past weekend:

[7]

That’s a pretty amazing piece of engineering in design, cost and schedule. China is doing them right and left. Russia is in on the act with its Perch bridge to Crimea that came in 6 months early. When was the last time a signature U.S. engineering project was publicized that wasn’t a weapons system? And they don’t count because they are always hyper-busted on cost and schedule.

Now Mattis and his crew claim that the Chinese economic activity is a “threat to [US] national security”. Well what are they going to do about it besides sabre rattle? What can they do about it except sabre rattle?

Shotgun tariffs and sanctions as well as military threats are as much a sign of system weakness (i.e., mis-allocation of resources and inflexibility) as anything else. the U.S. is getting its clocked cleaned under its very nose. The war-mongering Washington Apparatchiks are either oblivious to that or aware but impotent.

People in Washington see the U.S. rushing in to develop North Korea after the rapprochement. Wrong. China, South Korea and the SCO will do the heavy lifting and reap the returns, because the U.S. is more trouble than it’s worth.

#13 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 13, 2018 @ 10:15 am

Mr. Larison says: “The Singapore summit between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was quite a spectacle, but the show the two leaders put on produced virtually nothing of substance.”

Peter Van Buren has a different take. In his “Whatever happens next, the Trump-Kim summit is a win” Van Buren writes:

“It is easy…to criticize the agreement as vague and lacking in specific commitments regarding denuclearization. But those critics ignore Kim’s moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile testing, the return of American prisoners, the closing of a ballistic missile test site, and the shutting down of a major nuclear test facility without opening a new one. It is easy to forget that a few months ago North Korea was still testing nuclear devices to spark fears of a dark war. Calling the Singapore summit a failure in light of more detailed agreements and different efforts from the past ignores the reality that all of those past agreements failed.” (Reuters, June 12th)

#14 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 13, 2018 @ 10:43 am

“b.” linked to a piece by TAC’s Peter Van Buren entitled “Whatever happens next, the Trump-Kim summit is a win.” This particular Van Buren comment is especially important to this discussion:

“It is easy…to criticize the agreement as vague and lacking in specific commitments regarding denuclearization. But those critics ignore Kim’s moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile testing, the return of American prisoners, the closing of a ballistic missile test site, and the shutting down of a major nuclear test facility without opening a new one. It is easy to forget that a few months ago North Korea was still testing nuclear devices to spark fears of a dark war. Calling the Singapore summit a failure in light of more detailed agreements and different efforts from the past ignores the reality that all of those past agreements failed.”

#15 Comment By KevinS On June 13, 2018 @ 1:35 pm

The purpose of the summit was to provide a PR spectacle that played in Trump’s insatiable narcissism.

So let get this straight. Iran, which does not have nuclear weapons, remains a critical threat. North Korea, which still has its nuclear weapons, is no longer a threat because KJU told the Donald so. Geeesh.

One country in history has developed nuclear weapons and abandoned them, and this involved a monumental change in regime (South Africa after the demise of Apartheid and rise of Mandela and the ANC). North Korea will not be second as long as KJU remains in power. I am taking all bets on this one.

#16 Comment By Reverend Spooner On June 13, 2018 @ 1:56 pm

SteveM says “Again, the massive force driving this scenario as it plays out is Xi/China. Xi wants to put the North Korea problem to bed so that China can focus on the BRI, AIIB, SCO, EAEU initiatives while minimizing the “meddling” of the Global Cop Gorilla”.
So it’s not in America’s interest, am I not correct?
This is all a sham to hide the embarrassment of pulling out of the Iran deal and focus on attacking Iran.

#17 Comment By balconesfault On June 13, 2018 @ 1:57 pm

@SteveM Shotgun tariffs and sanctions as well as military threats are as much a sign of system weakness (i.e., mis-allocation of resources and inflexibility) as anything else. the U.S. is getting its clocked cleaned under its very nose. The war-mongering Washington Apparatchiks are either oblivious to that or aware but impotent.

Or, perhaps, the US is being currently run by a President who is concerned most with using his office to leverage deals that are financially beneficial to his and his families business interests, secondarily with being able to make big splashes that get him a lot of attention, third with rewarding political allies.

Considering long term impacts on the US economy are as alien to Trump as the idea that willingness to pay top dollar to fly on a shuttle with maple wood veneer, chrome seat belt latches, and gold colored lavatory fixtures might be a short term phenomena. The man is easily distracted by bright shiny objects.

#18 Comment By KS On June 13, 2018 @ 3:53 pm

Here is a heretical point of view. There were no details in the agreement because neither party is interested in the details and nor are they going to be.

The north has no intention of abandoning the nuclear program. They saw what happened to Quadafi. And who knows maybe there is some recognition of this in DC too. And acceptance.

So the whole thing is for show only. NK stops the pesky business of tests and launches which get americans all rattled. We let the status quo be…quietly while continuously proclaiming progress.

In the meantime other steps of reunification continue at a gentle pace. Combined sports teams, more trade,those condos on the beach.

Over time reunification will happen. It will take a few generations. Kims father was a child of war with bitter memories. Kim grew up in peace studied in Switzerland, watched the NBA.

Kims children will grow up with reunification as an ideal, smart phones and maybe even studies in Seoul.

For their children(Kims grandchildren) the conflict will just be a boring chapter of history. They will want to vacation in those condos, try out the latest fashions from Seoul.

The nuclear program will be going lower and lower in priority with each passing generation. Until at some point it will be mothballed, with pigeon poop being the only new things to touch it.

By then the border will have also disappeared. North and South will be one.

That my friends is the path to peace.