The day after a June 12 visit to Singapore for the first ever meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, President Trump tweeted:
“Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea. President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer – sleep well tonight!”
In a recent conversation with Fordham News, Raymond Kuo, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science and an expert on international relations and Asia, said it’s not quite that simple.
Full transcript below
Raymond Kuo: The major lesson is that if you have nuclear weapons, you get a seat at the table. If you’re Iraq and you’re hiding the fact or a little coy about the fact that you may or may not have nuclear weapons, you’ll get invaded by the United States. If you give up your weapons like you did in Libya, eventually you as a leader will get killed, and if you’re Iran and negotiate an agreement, well the U.S. isn’t going to hold up its end of the bargain. So, much, much better to just have the nuclear weapons and hold onto them because that is your one guarantee, and you get a seat at the table.
Patrick Verel: “Before taking office, people were assuming that we were going to war with North Korea. President Obama said North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer. Sleep well tonight.” After a June 12th visit to Singapore with the first ever meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, this was how President Trump summed things up in a June 13th tweet. Sounds promising, right? But before we break out the Nobel Peace Prize polish, we sat down with assistant professor of political science, Raymond Kuo, an expert on international relations in Asia. I’m Patrick Verel, and this is Fordham News.
Patrick Verel: How much safer do you feel after this meeting?
Raymond Kuo: Not that much safer. Compared to last year, it’s better that they’re not insulting each other. Trump’s not calling Kim little rocket man and threatening each other with nuclear attack. The fact that they didn’t end up killing each other at the summit, that’s a pretty good sign. But generally speaking, I don’t know if you really get credit for de-escalating a conflict that you previously escalated. And there has been no real change in North Korea’s capabilities. They’re still able to hit the United States with their nuclear weapons, their ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology. The on the ground facts really haven’t changed all that much after the summit. So, in terms of how much safer I feel? Eh, we didn’t die in a nuclear holocaust. That’s great.
Patrick Verel: Do you feel as if the meeting achieved anything new or concrete, or was it all just basically a photo op?
Raymond Kuo: It was mostly a photo op. It had some marginal achievements, but North Korea has promised denuclearization many times in the past, 1985, 1992, 1994, 2005, 2007, 2012. And there are more that aren’t even on that list. Those are just some major agreements. It’s good to get North Korea and the United States talking, but the process was a real mess. Normally the way these summits happen is that you have a build-up on the lower levels of the government to try to reach some kind of foundational agreement, and then you build more and more towards more advanced, more comprehensive agreements. Then you bring in the president and the heads of state to finalize those treaties.
Generally this wasn’t what happened here at all. It was a real missed opportunity. Trying to get complete and verifiable dismantling of the nuclear weapons, setting that as a goal of the meeting, wasn’t gonna be possible, and it meant that they didn’t do a lot of lower level process stuff. Information sharing, verification of the number of nuclear sites. We could have done a lot more work to help reduce the North Korean arsenal. Even if it may have not eliminated it, but reduce it, deter the export of nuclear technology, which they’ve done to Pakistan, and then help to avoid accidents or accidental escalation. So, generally speaking this was a photo op, or as Ankit Panda has said, a really great nuclear nonproliferation expert called it a “goat rodeo.”
His major point about all of this was that especially in the media, have tended to treat the summit as a normal presidential head of state summit, which it wasn’t that. You didn’t have the foundational process. You didn’t have the lower level people getting involved. There was a danger I think even a week before that the U.S. side would pull out. And the lack of U.S. preparation really showed. The meeting itself was a giveaway. It’s something that the North Koreans have wanted for literally decades. Trump’s suggestion that we would cancel the joint military exercised with the South Koreans wasn’t coordinated with South Korea or Japan. Then he adopted the Chinese and North Korean language on those exercises, which was a propaganda coup for both the Chinese as well as North Korea.
Patrick Verel: Now John Bolton, who’s Trump’s National Security Advisor, has touted Libya as a model for how North Korea might give up its nuclear weapons, but given that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was subsequently overthrown and killed in 2011, why would anybody look at that country and say, “Yeah that’s how this should be done”?
Raymond Kuo: Well they wouldn’t. Not if you want to have effective diplomacy, but that’s Bolton’s point. Bolton’s been pretty consistent and diplomacy was just something to get out of the way very, very quickly so we could get to that military solution. To some extent if I could say that there’s a loser out of the summit, then Bolton was actually it. Diplomacy didn’t end in warfare, so he wasn’t able to push diplomacy out of the way to get to that war, that military solution that he really wanted. But do remember that Bolton, it’s suggested, made the Libya connection because he wanted to derail the summit. Kim criticized Bolton’s statement because essentially it threatens regime change. When Trump effectively heard that Kim was thinking about canceling, he preemptively canceled on Kim. But that was also a bad move. It made Kim seem like the diplomat. It put China, South Korea, and North Korea all on the same side, and if he had just let Kim cancel it, then the South Korea and the Chinese would be on the US’s side and provide more leverage going into the negotiation.
Patrick Verel: Obviously when you talk about past agreements, the one that’s even more recent than Libya would be Iran. We managed to convince them to stop building nuclear weapons in 2015. Then we withdrew from that agreement in May. How do you think that withdrawal will effect these negotiations going forward with North Korea?
Raymond Kuo: Well it strongly undermines American credibility. Set aside if you think the JCPO, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, was a good deal or not, the fundamental point is that the U.S. made the agreement. Some people say, “Well it was done by executive agreement,” but most international agreements right now are done completely by the executive. We have very few actual treaties anymore. If the U.S. is unwilling to abide by executive agreement that it made with a whole bunch of different provisions and lots of detail, then why should Kim trust anything the U.S. says right now? That’s the fundamental problem of credibility in international negotiations. And reputations, consistency, these sorts of things really matter. Kim essentially baked that idea in, that the U.S. may not be a credible negotiator, but I’m coming to the table for this photo op. He didn’t necessarily get tricked into thinking that the US could be trusted because he didn’t give away all that much, if anything.
Patrick Verel: Where do you think China plays in all this?
Raymond Kuo: China and North Korea are probably the big winners out of the summit. China is North Korea’s only ally. It tends to be an uncertain one at that. They like the North Koreans because they’re a buffer state and a hedge against US power. If the U.S. wants to do anything in east Asia, it has to contend with the DPRK as well as the Chinese. And also any regime collapse happening in North Korea would be really, really bad. Kim’s standing in North Korea has evidently increased. The North Korea stays, it remains as a buffer state with nuclear weapons. There was a fear that North Korea was trying to shift to the United States, which wasn’t likely, but there was at least the idea that North Korea was gonna play the U.S. and Chinese off of each other. That didn’t seem to happen. And the summit gives China a pretext for reducing sanctions. That’s the critical thing, and it’s already starting to happen.
Trump talks about his maximum pressure campaign. What that means is that we’re getting all of our allies together in the Chinese and maybe even the Russians together to impose sanctions on the North Koreans, but the success or marginal success or the optic success of diplomacy in the summit means that China can already start to reduce those sanctions, reduce the bite that the North Koreans are feeling, and make a lot of money out of the situation. On top of that, there are a couple wins in terms of Trump called the joint military exercises war games. He called them provocative. This parrots the line of Beijing, and it’s pretty much a propaganda coup that you’re definitely gonna see in future videos and things from the Chinese.
Patrick Verel: Do you have any thoughts about what might happen going forward?
Raymond Kuo: The Secretary of State Pompeo’s trying to follow up on these conversations and reach some sort of agreement, but it’s really difficult to see how the U.S. is gonna get anything close to a coherent agreement out of this or an effective agreement out of this. Maybe the U.S. will be able to leverage the summit, but if the Chinese are already reducing their sanctions, if the North Koreans are getting relief from the things that brought them to the table to begin with, and the U.S. didn’t get any of that stuff in advance, it’s hard to see how the U.S. gains more of a negotiation when it has less leverage. My general feeling is that we’ll be back here in a few years, just like we have been since the 1980’s, if not earlier.
Patrick Verel: One thing I heard was that there was a possibility that North Korea might be looking to China to model for them. Kim basically is looking to China and says, “Well they have this style of government, but they still have free markets, so they get the best of both worlds. They get access to markets, but they still get to maintain control over the society and get to keep nuclear weapons.”
Raymond Kuo: The Chinese economic structure and the North Korean economic structure are very, very different. There’s a concern. This hearkens back to old modernization theory from the 1950’s and 1960’s that if you try to modernize an economy too quickly, you’ll end up getting revolutions. There’s some concern that that North Koreans are so impoverished that even seeing Kim go to Singapore and the technology and the standard of living they have over there might cause some degree of unrest within North Korea. The idea that they Pyongyang would open up the same way that the Chinese have done, they would be much, much more cautious about that. On top of it, President Xi Jinping has been consolidating national industries. So the lesson that Kim might get is well, we don’t need to open up. We just need to have great power status or prestige. Then I can get all the luxury goods I want and I can maintain state control of a variety of different, like military production, agriculture, communications and that kind of thing.
In terms of nuclear weapons, I think the major lesson that Kim has drawn from all of this is not from China, but from Iraq, Libya, and Iran. The major lesson is that if you have nuclear weapons, you get a seat at the table. If you’re Iraq and you’re hiding the fact or are a little coy about the fact that you may or may not have nuclear weapons, you’ll get invaded by the United States. If you give up your weapons like you did in Libya, eventually you as a leader will get killed, and if you’re Iran and negotiate an agreement, well the U.S. isn’t gonna hold up its end of the bargain. So much, much better to just have the nuclear weapons and hold onto them because that is your one guarantee, and you get a seat at the table.
Patrick Verel: Okay, this has been seriously depressing.
Raymond Kuo: Yeah it is. But look, the way I tend to think about nuclear weapons is that it is a miracle that somehow these enormously powerful weapons have not been used on each other and that we’re still alive. It’s both depressing, absolutely true, but also it make you really appreciate every day you wake up.