What is going to happen in U.S.-North Korea relations this year?
It depends on the interaction of a 36‐year‐old communist emperor who exercises absolute power and a vainglorious 73‐year‐old president who wishes he had the same authority. Toss in a world roiled by the COVID-19 pandemic, global recession, and an incipient China-U.S. cold war. Who knows what to expect.
Donald Trump will be most concerned about being reelected. His administration’s ostentatiously incompetent response to the coronavirus invasion and subsequent economic collapse have substantially dimmed his chances. Yet Democrat Joe Biden is a desperately bad choice, his abilities atrophied by age and moderate image belied by multiple leftward policy lurches. The political campaign will be a brutal battle to the political death, in which the American people will be the primary casualties.
The president will be desperate to highlight a foreign policy success. If not North Korea, then what?
The tattered China trade accord may not survive until November. The Afghan peace pact is looking like the continuation of nearly 19 years of conflict. Despite abundant rhetoric against “endless wars,” U.S. troops also remain in action in Africa, Iraq, and Syria. Cuba, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela continue to ostentatiously resist Washington despite the application of “maximum pressure.” The president’s closest foreign “friends” are all appalling dictators—Kim, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fatteh al‐Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman. Imagine a campaign commercial with their purported endorsements of the president.
A deal with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea looks like the best bet.
What the North’s Chairman/Supreme Leader thinks of America’s election spectacle is unknown. However, he almost certainly would prefer that Trump win. From what we know of the DPRK, Kim holds all power tightly. That makes normal diplomacy, with others negotiating the details of an agreement to be formalized by the principals, more difficult. Trump’s professed preference for deal-making—and demonstrably poor skill in forging serious and good arrangements—offers another advantage.
Finally, if Biden followed the Obama administration’s strategy with North Korea, there wouldn’t be any negotiations if he won. Indeed, the presumptive Democratic nominee is likely to criticize Trump for having legitimized Kim’s rule without getting anything in return. That would make a Kim‐Biden deal even less likely.
Also playing a role will be South Korean President Moon Jae‐in. Washington’s sanctions blocked his policy of expanding ties with the North, which led Pyongyang to belittle the Republic of Korea’s efforts. However, Moon’s party greatly strengthened its control of the National Assembly in the recent election and the opposition is in disarray. Moon is likely to be emboldened to press Washington to relax restrictions that limit his ability to increase economic cooperation with the North.
This suggests a reasonable chance that the stars will align and Messrs. Trump and Kim will meet somewhere and sign something before the election which might have some benefit. Although more to preserve a modest détente than transform relations on the peninsula.
Possible is an executive agreement that includes:
- A firm, cross‐his‐heart‐hope‐to‐die promise by Kim to denuclearize once all parties agree that stable, peaceful bilateral and regional relations have been established by all the former combatants;
- A U.S. commitment to lift some sanctions and suspend others, with a focus on limits that hinder South‐North integration;
- A pledge by Pyongyang to dismantle some parts of its program, such as the Yongbyon nuclear facilities. Otherwise, the sanctions will “snap back”.
- An offer by Kim to take actions that will provide a vivid photo op of impending disarmament, akin to the 2008 destruction of the cooling tower of Yongbyon’s nuclear plant.
- Borrowing from proposals at the failed Hanoi summit and other sources, the two sides will agree to legalize travel both ways; establish liaison offices in the respective capitals; initiate regular diplomatic consultations; issue a peace declaration, and rename the 105‐story Ryugyong Hotel the “Trump Spectacular.”
To make the greatest impact, Trump will invite Kim to the White House for the signing ceremony. That will create the photo op to “trump” all photo ops. On Kim’s departure, the president will declare “peace in our time,” or something similar. While declaring their accord to be the greatest diplomatic achievement in human and perhaps galactic history, he will blame Barack Obama, and especially Joe Biden, for the persistence of the Korean cold war. Which, the president will note, further demonstrates the immensity and genius of his achievement.
Or maybe not. Perhaps Trump will replace Mike Pence with Lindsey Graham and begin bombing North Korea, since the subsequent war and mass deaths and destruction would be “over there” rather than “over here,” as the South Carolina senator put it. The president would insist that the resulting war was the best ever and that responsibility for starting it belonged to Biden.
When things look bad, it always is worth remembering that they could be worse.