Tag: North Korea

North Korea Revelations Should Neither Surprise the U.S. Nor Derail Talks

Several media reports citing the U.S. intelligence community and arms control experts indicate that North Korea has upgraded its infrastructure for building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in recent months. The revelations counteract Trump’s optimistic tweet that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat [sic] from North Korea” following his summit with Kim Jong Un last month.

The United States should not be surprised by these developments. The Trump-Kim summit was not the culmination of a long, arduous diplomatic process as most summits are, but a high-profile meeting that had far more symbolic value than nitty-gritty arms control substance. This was the expected outcome given the short period of time to prepare for the summit and the fact that it almost fell apart just a few weeks before it happened. Additionally, Kim made no pledge to halt construction of ballistic missiles, fissile material, or related infrastructure, and it isn’t surprising that he would want to keep expanding these capabilities until it is necessary to give them up.

Concessions made by Washington and Pyongyang have built some trust and momentum for diplomacy, but this is not sufficient to achieve denuclearization. Looking ahead, U.S. negotiators should take these recent revelations seriously and press Pyongyang to reveal more information about its nuclear and missile infrastructure. The United States should also demand that North Korea allow inspectors to keep tabs on nuclear and missile facilities and verify North Korean compliance with promises to dismantle facilities as negotiations progress. Creating a robust inspection and verification regime is a necessary step to ensure that North Korea is living up to its rhetoric and taking steps toward denuclearization.

Keep Calm and Summit On

Last Tuesday, North Korea canceled a high-level diplomatic meeting with South Korea and threatened to call off next month’s summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s statements came just one week after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned from Pyongyang with three American citizens held prisoner by the Kim regime and the date for the Trump-Kim summit in hand.

The current episode of tension reflects a wide and dangerous expectation gap between the United States and North Korea, but it should not dissuade the Trump administration from going through with the summit.

If the Trump administration wants to take away the right lessons from North Korea’s display of anger it needs to first understand the root cause of North Korea’s ire. When Pyongyang announced that it was calling off a high-level diplomatic meeting with South Korea it cited the U.S.-South Korea military exercise known as “Max Thunder,” a large-scale air force exercise that has occurred every year since 2009, as the culprit. A statement released by state broadcaster KCNA said, “The maneuver [Max Thunder] is the largest-ever and a reflection of the invariable stand of the U.S. and south (sic) Korea to persist in the ‘maximum pressure and sanctions’ against the DPRK.” In particular, North Korea objected to U.S. F-22 fighters and B-52 bombers participating in the exercise, as the former can easily penetrate North Korean airspace with little chance of detection and the latter is nuclear-capable. After the KCNA denunciation of Max Thunder, the Pentagon released a statement clarifying that B-52s were not slated to participate but North Korea did not drop its opposition to the exercise.

Max Thunder itself is probably not the real reason why North Korea is threatening to call off the Trump-Kim summit. If Kim viewed the exercise as unacceptable he had ample opportunity to raise the issue with the United States and South Korea. The exercise began on May 11 and there was no indication given before or during the exercise that North Korea viewed it as a potential deal breaker. Moreover, if Kim had voiced concerns Washington and Seoul probably would have adjusted some elements of Max Thunder to preserve diplomacy considering they agreed to postpone the annual Foal Eagle exercise so it would take place after the Winter Olympics and adjusted the length of and forces that participated in Foal Eagle to ensure a smooth inter-Korean summit.

Maintaining Peace Is the End, Denuclearization Is the Means

Demonstrating the capacity to surprise, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un acted like a modern statesman when he ventured into the Republic of Korea for his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. That doesn’t mean Kim and his heavily armed nation are not potentially dangerous. But after watching Kim in action, as Margaret Thatcher said of Mikhail Gorbachev, “we can do business together.”

Reasons for caution are many. After all, Kim’s father had summits with two successive South Korean presidents, but by earlier this year people were talking about the possibility of nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea. However, despite the danger of excessive expectations, the diplomatic option first advanced by Kim has shifted the peninsula away from military conflict, at least in the short-term.

Which is a major benefit. As I point out in a new study for Cato, war simply is not an option. It wouldn’t be “over there,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) infamously assured us. Americans would be directly involved, even if the North was not capable of striking the U.S. homeland. In any case, if war resulted, the likely death and destruction on the peninsula, with South Korea a major part of the battlefield, and likely beyond, including Japan, would be far too great to justify the risk.

Kim Jong-un’s New Line and U.S. Negotiating Strategy

If President Trump wants to have a successful summit with Kim Jong-un then it’s important to understand the domestic political incentives that will shape Kim’s approach to negotiations. On April 20th, Kim gave a major speech at a plenum meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Most U.S. media outlets focused on the announcement that the North would dismantle its nuclear testing facility and stop ballistic missile tests, but the speech also revealed important information about Kim’s political incentives that received less attention.

During a plenum meeting in March 2013, Kim announced the byungjin line,” which stated that the North would develop its economy and nuclear arsenal simultaneously. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has made significant progress in the five years since the byungjin line was first announced. Kim acknowledged this progress in his April 20th speech when he declared that the byungjin line was successfully concluded. He also announced a “new strategic line” that focuses on economic and scientific development.

The end of the byungjin line and announcement of a new overarching strategy for North Korea shortly before the Trump-Kim summit has major implications for the Trump administration’s negotiating strategy.

The April 20th speech indicates that Kim’s primary objective in negotiations will be getting sanctions relief, because lifting sanctions is essential for achieving the economic development objective of the new strategic line. The new line may partially explain why the North has not demanded U.S. troop reductions in the lead-up to the summit. Pyongyang would rather not have a U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula, but the troop presence does not greatly affect North Korea’s economic development so their removal is not necessary to achieve the new strategic line.

The Trump administration could use sanctions relief in a couple different ways depending on its overall negotiating strategy. For example, the United States could offer small concessions on sanctions relief in exchange for incremental progress on denuclearization in a tit-for-tat process. Such an approach would incentivize Kim to stay at the negotiating table over a longer period of time, but it would probably not produce any big, short-term wins for the Trump administration. Another approach entails standing firm on sanctions and not loosening them until the North takes major steps toward denuclearization. This would give the United States more leverage than the tit-for-tat approach, but Kim may be less willing to do what the United States demands without some other kind of concessions.

Coordination with U.S. allies and China will take center stage if sanctions relief is a more important issue to Kim than security guarantees. There are two main types of sanctions against North Korea. The United States, Japan, and South Korea have implemented several rounds of unilateral sanctions, while the UN Security Council has its own set of sanctions. The Trump administration was able to get China’s support for strong UN sanctions in 2017 as part of its maximum pressure strategy.

If the Trump administration wants to withhold sanctions relief to pressure Kim to take big steps towards denuclearization then it will have to coordinate with other sanctioning parties. Japan will likely stay in lockstep with the United States, but keeping South Korea and China on board could be more challenging. Seoul and Washington appear to be on the same page right now, but maintaining close coordination may prove difficult if the Moon Jae-in administration faces pressure to make some concessions on its unilateral sanctions during the inter-Korean summit. Maintaining China’s support for UN sanctions could also prove difficult because of the recent downturn in the US-China economic relationship.

Kim’s April 20th speech warrants very close consideration by the Trump administration. The end of the byungjin line marks the start of a new period for North Korea. Kim’s nuclear weapons are still important to him, but the speech indicates shifting domestic political incentives that will play an important role in negotiations with the United States. As the Trump administration crafts their negotiating strategy for the Trump-Kim summit they should keep Kim’s domestic incentives in mind and do their best to use these incentives to their advantage.

TELs on Parade: The Missiles in North Korea’s Army Day Parade

Kim Jong-un threw a big military parade earlier today, reminding the world of his military power on the eve of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony. Compared to the massive annual parade that takes place on April 15th (the anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth), today’s parade was smaller and less significant, though it did feature some interesting missile systems.

The first missile system of note was a new type of close- or short-range ballistic missile (C/SRBM) that, at first glance, looks similar to the Russian-made Iskander-M SRBM.

 

(New type of North Korean C/SRBM, February 8, 2018. Source: YouTube)

(Iskander-M SRBM system. Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Like the Iskander, the new North Korean system carries two missiles side-by-side in a four axle transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle. Another similarity of the two systems is fuel type: most C/SRBMs use solid rocket fuel. Although the type of fuel used in the new North Korean missile system cannot be determined from the parade video alone, it would be very unusual for a missile of its size to not use solid fuel.

The Trump Doctrine and Public Opinion at One Year

In advance of the January 30 conference here at Cato—The Trump Doctrine at One Year—I review public attitudes toward Trump’s “America First” vision and his foreign policy handling over his first year in office. Join us for a what will undoubtedly be a spirited conversation with a fantastic group of experts.

Donald Trump’s America First rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign marked a sharp departure from the fundamental tenets of liberal internationalism that have guided U.S. foreign policy since World War II. Trump’s tirades against free trade, NATO allies, immigrants (legal and otherwise), and his general disinterest in engaging with the world unless there was money in it for the United States horrified the foreign policy establishment of both parties.

Beyond concerns about Trump, many observers worried that his success reflected the demise of public support for internationalism. Though the public supported robust internationalist policies after World War II and during the Cold War, Trump’s emergence coincided with rising economic insecurity and inequality, intense political polarization, and dropping confidence in government to solve the problems facing the nation. Had the public perhaps decided that internationalism’s time had come and gone? Would Trump’s presidency usher in rising support for nativist and protectionist policies and calls to turn inward, away from the international arena?

A wide array of poll data from Trump’s first year in office strongly suggests the answer is no. A large majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of foreign policy and his America First policies are among the most unpopular elements of his foreign policy.

Trump’s fiery attacks on unfair trading practices by China and Japan and his criticism of NAFTA as “the worst deal ever made” may have energized his base during the campaign, but since taking office Trump’s course on trade has not been a popular one. Though Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as soon as he took office and appears likely to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Americans remain committed to free trade. A June 2017 survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 72% of the public thinks international trade is good for the United States. An October 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center echoed this result, finding that Americans are more likely to believe NAFTA is good for the United States by 56-33%. 

All We Want for Christmas

If you read the blog regularly, you might have noticed a pattern recently: Cato’s foreign policy scholars weighing in to see if Santa might be able to improve U.S. foreign policy for us. After all, American leaders seem perpetually unwilling to do so, and the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy doesn’t seem to offer much more hope for a more realistic, sensible approach to foreign policy either.

Our scholars asked for a variety of foreign policy changes, some big and some small. Some would be relatively easy to achieve if the political will were there, such as Chris Preble’s request for a new round of Base Reallocation and Closure (BRAC), or Eric Gomez’s desire for a better North Korea strategy. Others might be more challenging, like Trevor Thrall’s call to rebalance civil-military relations in favor of civilian leadership.

But all the suggestions share one thing in common: they would all make U.S. foreign policy more rational, effective or accountable to the public. You can check them all out here, along with a more satirical take on the question in the Christmas episode of Power Problems, our foreign policy podcast.

So all we want for Christmas is…

 

…a BRAC (Chris Preble)

…Information about U.S. Military Deployments (Emma Ashford)

…to Fight Just the Necessary Wars (Erik Goepner)

Civilian Leadership of U.S. Foreign Policy (Trevor Thrall)

…the Travel Ban to End (Sahar Khan)

…a New North Korea Strategy (Eric Gomez)

…and an F-35 (or just better defense policy, budgeting and a partridge in a pear tree) 

 

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