North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s refusal at February’s Hanoi summit to bow to Donald Trump’s “maximum-pressure” approach may prove to be a watershed in the US president’s notion of foreign-policy making, his perception of the ability of the United States to impose its will on others and his faith in his self-acclaimed negotiating skills.
Kim’s rejection of Trump’s demand that North Korea fully denuclearise prior to the lifting of harsh United Nations and US economic sanctions leaves the president with few good choices. How Trump decides to pick up the pieces could have far-reaching consequences for his approach towards other perceived disruptors of the existing world order, first and foremost Iran that similarly shows no signs of buckling under crippling US sanctions designed to suck life out of the Iranian economy.
For now, Trump is likely to opt for a carrot-and-stick approach towards North Korea involving continued maximum pressure coupled with dialogue, a stark contrast to Iran with whom the US leader has so far refused to engage. It could prove to be a long-drawn-out process, with little prospect in the foreseeable future of an outcome that would prove the value of his maximum approach.
That is true even though the dialogue signals to Pyongyang a degree of sincerity in the Trump administration’s assertion that it is not seeking a regime change, a message Washington has decidedly refrained from sending to Tehran.
With elections in the United States less than two years away, Trump’s alternatives are either risky or similarly fraught with uncertainty. Trump could revert to his initial threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and pledge to “totally destroy” North Korea, which in his mind brought Kim to the negotiating table. That, however, could push the United States into yet another military encounter and trouble relations with major powers such as China with whom Trump has bigger fish to fry such as trade.
Trump’s third and final option would involve a climbdown from his all-or-nothing strategy that aims to achieve full denuclearisation in exchange for lifting of the sanctions in one fell swoop and was advocated by his hardline national security adviser, John Bolton. Instead, Trump would have to acknowledge the failure of that strategy and adopt a step-by-step approach, the rewarding of each step that North Korea takes with the lifting or weakening of some element of the sanctions regime.
The Trump administration is not big on a gradual approach. “Nobody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach. In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearisation of North Korea as a condition for…all the other steps being taken,” a transcript of a briefing quoted a state department official, believed to be Stephen E Beigun, Trump’s special representative for North Korea, as saying. The official said an “incremental approach” would take “a long period of time, and quite honestly has failed on previous occasions to deliver the outcome that both sides at least ostensibly committed to”.
Yet, a step-by-step approach is what North Korea seeks. Kim made that clear in his proposal that his country be granted partial sanctions relief in exchange for the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its major nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
In a rare encounter with journalists, North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho hinted at the reason Kim would not budge. Ri said “the current level of
confidence” did not justify an all-or-nothing deal.
The experience of Trump withdrawing from various international accords, including the 2015 deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme, has undermined confidence in North Korea and beyond in the president’s willingness to honour agreements he concludes and the value of American commitments when a new administration, which doesn’t like the understandings reached by its predecessor, comes to power.
“The administration position is that North Korea must surrender everything first and hope for the best, and North Korea is not nearly desperate enough to consider such a lopsided proposal,” said analyst Daniel Larson.
The silver lining is that despite North Korea apparently preparing to resume missile testing in violation of Kim’s promise to Trump in Hanoi, neither country is pouncing to go to the brink. Both countries seem to want to keep the door to renew negotiations open even as they take their time.
For now, this may prove to be a positive development even if it kicks Trump’s watershed moment down the road. The longer, however, Kim is able to live the fallout of the sanctions, the narrower Trump’s choices get. That may not necessarily be a good thing as he gets close to the 2020 elections.
(James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture)
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Updated Date: Mar 25, 2019 12:41:07 IST