Failing North Korea Talks Once Again Suggest Starting Small


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This is re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago. The argument is one I have made repeatedly – that big-bang, all-or-nothing deals with North Korea are unlikely – because of low trust on both sides – and they represent far too large a leap to take given North Korean cheating in the past. We should scale back our efforts to smaller, cumulative steps which are actually doable. Think where would be now if we had done this for the last 18 months instead of gambling again and again on a huge breakthrough while not making any actual progress.

The problem is that the US and South Korean presidents both want a big-bang deal for domestic political reasons unrelated to the substance of denuclearization talks with the North. Trump wants a Nobel Peace Prize to stave off impeachment and get himself re-elected. He will sign anything because he doesn’t actually care about the deal’s contents. Also, and perhaps as important, Trump is lazy. He doesn’t want to negotiate in depth and detail with NK because he doesn’t know enough to do that and doesn’t want to learn.

SK President Moon wants a big-bang deal because he has pinned his whole presidency to détente with North Korea. All his domestic policies are contentious and are being overwhelmed by the North Korea issue which is absorbing all Moon’s time and energy. NK has a way of overwhelming SK presidents’ time in office, and Moon has worsened that normal time-suck by jumping in with both feet (and getting nothing).

In short, the North won’t go for a big, one-shot deal just because Moon and Trump are desperate at home. If we really want progress, we need to start with small, manageable, transparent swaps. These should involve a limited series of steps on both sides over a limited period of time. This would make post-hoc evaluation easier: after such a swap, we could do an after-action analysis and decide what the next swap should be. With each step, we could enlarge cooperation, building organically and credibly on previous steps. Needless to say, this will take a long time. But it is far more likely to actually work than hoping that NK will suddenly – after 50 years developing nukes – agree to trade them away. They won’t. That should be pretty obvious at this point.

The full essay follows the jump:

Trump’s Impeachment is Good for US Foreign Policy


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This essay is a local re-post of my essay for the Lowy Institute for this month.

In brief, I argue that Trump, for all his bluster and chaos, has not actually moved the US foreign policy consensus that much. So if he is impeached, we’ll likely get a ‘snap-back’ to more traditional liberal internationalist positions. That would broadly be a good thing, but for the over-interventionism of the traditional foreign policy community. Trump’s departure would mean the end of idiocy like undercutting the World Trade Organization or the Universal Postal Union, attacking US allies, throwing friends like the Kurds under the bus, and cozying up to dictators like Kim Jong Un.

Trump is too uninformed, impulsive, and erratic to represent any kind of meaningful critique of foreign policy liberalism. Some of his supporters try, but it’s most been in vain. There’s no coherent Trump Doctrine, just whatever suits his fancy or serves his political purposes at the time. Nor has Trump created an alternative foreign policy community to the current one. As POTUS, Trump is hugely influential in that community, but he’s leaving no lasting mark because he’s too incoherent and, well, dumb. So if he’s impeached, it’s back to what was, because there is no serious Trumpian alternative.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Trump’s Third Pandering, Legitimizing, Normalizing Photo-Op Summit with Kim Jong Un: Trump is Getting Played


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This is a local re-post of an essay I recently wrote for The National Interest about the DMZ summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un. In short, it was a joke, another media stunt of the kind Trump is so good at. But now that everyone – Trump, Kim, Moon – have gotten their vanity picks for the history books and domestic legitimation/re-election needs, can we actually get back to, you know, the actual point of all this – a US-North Korean deal?

This is now the third of these made-for-TV, substance-free summit. Kim wins the optics and legitimation benefits just by showing up. He doesn’t have to do anything; he wins just by coming and smiling for the cameras. Trump on the other hand needs a deal to look like the meeting was worth it, because meeting Kim grants Trump no prestige, as it does vice versa for Kim. In fact, Trump looks at this point like he’s getting played, because he’s not getting anything despite three meetings so far, with a White House event possibly to come. Once again, it looks like Trump is just winging it, which is an asinine way to conduct foreign policy, especially for a superpower.

All that matters is what deal comes from all this and we still have no idea what they will be. It’s fashionable to say we’re making ‘progress,’ but are we? I’d say we’re just drifting.

The essay follows the jump:

More on Whether the US will Make Commensurate Concessions to North Korea to get a Nuclear Deal? How about Buying the Program?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote a couple weeks ago for The National Interest. It is an extension of this first essay.

That original essay explored why the US will have to make concessions to North Korea if it wants a nuclear deal. The North Koreans aren’t stupid, and CVID is tantamount to unilateral disarmament for nothing. So if we really want them to give up at least some of the nukes and missiles – they won’t give up all – then we have to give them something of commensurate value. That seems pretty obvious at this point, no matter how much official Washington won’t even discuss counter-concessions.

I see two things we can give them: a) a boatload of money, or b) the retrenchment of US strategic assets from South Korea. Or we can give them nothing and try to adapt to a nuclear North Korea. I would rank these choices as: buy them (bad); live with nuclear missilized NK, ie, accept the new status quo (worse); swap them for a tangible US regional strategic assets like bases or airwings (worst).

So this essay argues why buying out as much of their program as we can is better than nothing or giving up local assets. The last is a particularly terrible idea, because once we leave, we’ll never come back. That’s what happened after the US left the Philippines in the 1980s. Even if we said we could flow back into Korea easily, the actual removal of US hard, tangible assets, like the bases in the pic above, would basically be decoupling/abandonment in all but name. It would dramatically soften the alliance.

So, for as ugly as it sounds to pay them off like its blackmail – and the Kims are nothing if not gangsters – that strikes me as better than the two alternatives.

The full essay follows the jump:

Hanoi Fallout (2): Trump is Too Incompetent and Unprepared for these Open-Ended, High Stakes Summits. Time to Stop


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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute earlier this month.

Basically, Trump blew Hanoi, because he is lazy and poor negotiator. He has no empathy, so he cannot put himself in another’s shoes. Nor does he read, so he has no idea what the issues really are. He isn’t preparing for these meetings. He is throwing them together as he goes. So he walks into them unprepared with little fallback when he doesn’t get his way. Both Singapore and Hanoi failed along the same lines. Trump is 0-2, because he’s winging it.

This is classic Trump of course and shows yet again how badly suited for the office he is. A normal president would have at least had staff hammer out some basic agreement beforehand so that acrimony was not the only outcome. But not Trump. Negotiating to him is laying down ultimatums and sounding off on Twitter. And the response is predictably: the North Koreans are upset at the snub and threatening to restart testing.

For the life of me, I cannot understand the affection of Trump’s voters for such rank incompetence. He is so obviously in over his head, bungling a rare window of opportunity with NK, because he simply will not read, plan, or prepare like a normal professional. It’s amazing he hasn’t wandered into something genuinely catastrophic.

The full essay follows the jump:

After the Trump Show in Singapore, N Korea Gets Kicked Back to Moon Jae In


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This is a local re-post of a Singapore response piece I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few days ago.

I’ll be honest and say that I still don’t really know what Trump achieved in Singapore. He’s running around the US and Fox claiming that he solved North Korea and and all that. But that’s not true. Just go read the Sentosa Declaration. It’s only 400 words and mostly aspirational. That’s not bad, but hardly worth presidential involvement.

In effect, what it really does is remove the Americans from the process and let Moon run this détente basically as he sees fit. Whether or not that is good thing depends on your North Korea politics, but the most important thing about Sentosa is that Trump got his spectacle and can now forget about North Korea and go back to Mueller and the Deep State and all that.

Moon now has checked the American box. He’s got an 80% approval rating. The left just cleaned up in the local elections last week, which were partially a validation of the outreach program. And the left is the largest bloc in parliament. So all the stars are aligned for a major left-progressive effort on North Korea. For three decades, progressives told us they could solve this if the right and the layers of bureaucracy and inertia were just out of the way. Now comes the test of that.

The text follows the jump:

Acid Test: All that Matters from All These North Korean Summits are the Concessions They Offer


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This is a local re-post of a something I wrote a few weeks ago for The National Interest.

Sorry, I don’t post as regularly here as I used to. I am super-busy. My TNI and Lowy author pages are the best place to find my stuff.

My point is only that all the ceremony, circumstance, and symbolism of all these summits doesn’t really mean anything until the Norks offer us something real. That’s all that really matters.

Yes, I get it that the symbolism is moving; that KJU and Moon stepping back and forth over the DMZ is pretty cool; that Korea should be united; that the pageantry was gripping TV. But honestly, it’s all puffery until PY gives us something real – inspectors, a missile count, some warheads, closing a gulag, etc. Moon and Trump won’t be able to get any deal by their hawks back home without genuine NK concessions, and we still haven’t seen those yet. So no, it’s not peace in our time.

The essay follows the jump:

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Can S Korean President Moon Sell a Deal with North Korea to the Hawks, in the US and South Korea?


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This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote earlier this month for the Lowy Institute. Basically, I am wondering if Moon can get a deal with North Korea by South Korea’s  conservatives, especially in the press. I am skeptical.

It is worth noting in this regard that Moon and the Blue House have said almost nothing publicly about the talks with Kim Jong Un, specifically what the agenda might be or what proposals POTROK might make. Does anyone else find that vaguely alarming? Given all the big talk about settling the big issues of Korean, shouldn’t POTROK be floating some ideas out there for the public and analyst community to chew over? And Moon talked so much about improved transparency in government as a candidate.

It is worth remembering that when SK President Park Geun Hye negotiated the comfort women deal in a blackhole like this, she faced punishing public criticism when the deal was finally released. Moon will face the same backlash if he gives away a lot with little to no public input or warning. This is all very curious. I wish we knew a lot more about what Moon and Trump are considering offering up – USFK, the alliance itself, aid, sanctions relief, recognition? Everyone is guessing, because these two democratic governments aren’t telling anyone anything. Grr.

So below the jump are some ideas on how to get a deal passed Seoul conservatives who are increasingly suspicious of this whole thing.

Get Real: We’re Not Going to ‘Totally Destroy’ North Korea. We’re Going to Manage It


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This is a local re-post of an essay I published earlier this month at The National Interest.

President Trump’s outlandish UN speech was yet another national embarrassment, and his threat to ‘totally destroy’ another country verges on a war crime. And it’s not in our interest to do that anyway, so let’s start thinking practically about how we’re going to manage this mess.

My TNI essay below argues that we need to try to manage North Korea, rather than seek some final solution, because North Korea is persistent whether we like it or not, and because it is a nuclear weapons state whether we like it or not. That sucks. But I don’t see what other choice we have. Bombing North Korea is a terrible idea for reasons I’ve been saying all year on this website. Talking to North Korea and getting a real deal that they’ll stick to, like JCPOA, would great. But they flim-flam us so much, and so many hawks in the US and South Korea are unwilling to negotiate seriously with the North (remember that Congressional Republicans helped undercut the Agreed Framework; it wasn’t just Nork cheating which undid it), that I doubt talks will go anywhere. So we’re left muddling through. Did I say already that this sucks?

So what does ‘management’ mean? Recognizing that we can’t sole every problem as we want and that bad stuff we just have to live with, like NK nuclear weapons. They are lots of smaller things we can do – sanctions, going after NK money in Chinese banks, missile defense, pruning NK’s diplomatic/money-raising global network, continuing to bang away on China to take this more seriously, and so on. So please, can President Trump and Nicki Haley stop talking like Dr. Strangelove so that the rest of us can get back to the problem of what we can realistically do about North Korea?

The full essay follows the jump:

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The North Korea Travel Ban is Probably a Good Idea at this point


This is a repost of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute recently on the travel ban preventing Americans from going to North Korea as of September 1 this year. The picture is the US State Department mailer to this effect from a few days ago on my iPhone.

Basically my argument is that the ban is a good idea at this point given how many foreigners Kim Jong Un seems to be snatching during his reign. The numbers have gone up, and although I went to North Korea as a tourist myself and have recommended it in the past, I no longer do so, especially for Americans. It’s just way too dangerous now.

Otto Warmbier’s death is the last straw, as I figure it was for Tillerson. At the time of his death, I thought a travel ban might well be the next step. I still find it curious that Kim Jong Un did not let Warmbier leave earlier. The tourist trade brings in needed dollars, and Pyongyang is already complaining about the US halt. They easily could have let him go when he fell into a coma and then just pretextually snatched the next idiot US tourist who drank too much to replace Warmbier. But they held onto him to the point where they’re responsible for his death. Pointless. Just shows once again how awful North Korea really is.

My full essay on the travel ban follows the jump:

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The Tragedy of Otto Warmbier: Time for a US Travel Ban?


ottowarmbierThis is a local re-post for an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute this month (here).

I feel nothing but anguish for this young man and his family. Our prayers go out to them. Given that North Korea almost certainly gave him a hack doctor – because all the good ones are kept for elites – who grossly misdiagnosed him, it is no exaggeration to say that Pyongyang effectively murdered this poor man.

The problem is what to do, and the options are all depressingly familiar. Cable news idiots are a talking about force again, but that’s a terrible idea for reasons well known by now. The big question is whether there should be a travel ban on US citizens going to North Korea. This idea gets raised every time there is a hostage-taking. Given that Warmbier was killed though, it is getting a lot more play this time. For myself, I would not counsel Americans to go now. I went in 2012 when it seemed reasonably safe. Kim Jong Un was new to power, and his habit of snatching Americans had not yet bloomed. But now it seems like this is a state policy almost. Don’t go to North Korea now. It is too risky.

The full essay follows the jump:

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My New York Times Op-Ed: A North Korea “Agenda for SK’s New Leader”


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This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote last week for The New York Times.

Basically it is four suggestions to President Moon on dealing with North Korea. They are (mildly) hawkish arguments of the sort I routinely make here, including all my favorite hobby horses – talks are a shell game, move the capital, spend more on defense, bang away at China to cut off North Korea, and start treating Japan like a liberal democratic ally instead of a potential imperialist. Naturally a dovish liberal like Moon will adopt all these. Hooray! I anticipate a Blue House call any day now…

Regular readers have seen all this before, but it’s still pretty cool to get into The New York Times though. I figure this will be the most read thing I ever write, so I rolled out arguments I know well rather than something really new. The full essay follows the jump.

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Park Geun-Hye’s Trip to that Bombastic Chinese Military Parade Was Actually a Good Idea


South Korean President Park Geun-hye (2nd from L) talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (3rd from L) as they, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping (far R), stand to review a massive military parade marking the 70th anniversary of China`s victory over Japan in World War II at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015, (Yonhap)

I know what your thinking: there’s the president of a democracy standing next to three dictators, one of whom insists on dressing like Mao, watching Chinese soldiers goose-step like fascists. Yikes! I agree that the optics are terrible. (Quick quiz: who’s the ‘president for life’ in blue on the left? Here.)

But Park is flattering China like this is for a purpose – to isolate North Korea. So stop all your nattering about her clothes at this event (yes, I’ve heard that); that she is Xi’s ‘girlfriend;’ that she’s a ‘sinophile;’ that she’s drifting from the US or turned her back on her friends or democracy or whatever. None of that is true. All of that is speculative.

Instead, she’s hustling hard – 6 trips to China in 3 years – to convince China that South Korea is not an enemy and that China can therefore give up the North Korean buffer. How many times have you heard American analysts, in an attempt to get China to do more on North Korea, say, ‘the road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing’? Well, here are the South Koreans taking that to heart. If you think she’s dissing the US alliance, recall that the whole purpose of the US-SK alliance is North Korea. The US alliance is not an end in itself, no matter what neocons think.

China is North Korea’s last trap-door to escape the obvious inefficiencies of its economy. Without China, the perks of running North Korea – the cars, yachts, booze, trips to Hong Kong, girls, foreign education for your kids, and all the rest – disappear. Cut that Chinese umbilical cord, and North Korean resources will diminish dramatically. As the budget steadily shrinks, regime elites will turn on each other over a diminishing pie. The Songun bargain (my term) – struck by Kim Jong Il to keep the system rolling after the Cold War, in which the KPA generals do not overthrow the Kims in exchange for the cushy lifestyle – would collapse, because the lifestyle is impossible without some access to the outside world. And the only place North Korean elites can park their money, traffick their meth and missile parts, import skiing equipment (yes, really), and all the rest, is China.

If you can finally cut off North Korea from the world – no more hidden pipelines – then I’d bet the regime would collapse within a decade from elite infighting over the small domestic, not very cushy resource pie leftover (no more Hennessey!). After the jump is a reprint of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute making this argument at length.

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The Iran Deal Cannot be a Template for a North Korea Deal if NK doesn’t Want to Deal


This is a rather tardy re-post of something I wrote for the Diplomat in the wake of the Iran deal in late July.

I still think my basic argument is correct. North Korea is far more isolated than Iran, so it needs the weapons a lot more. It also spent a far larger proportionate share of GDP to develop those weapons. So there’s no way they’d give them up without impossible concessions like the withdrawal of USFK or the end of multiparty elections in South Korea.

I do think the Americans, and especially South Koreans, would be open to dealing. But the Norks aren’t. The South Koreans especially just want to find modus vivendi with North Korea so that they can forget about it. But being ignored as the backward, nut-ball, third-world hellhole that it is, is exactly what the Norks don’t want. They crave the prestige of global attention, because otherwise they’re just a nuclear version of Zimbabwe or Turkmenistan. And how could the heroic Baekdu bloodline preside over a dump no one cares about?

So forget any deals. Provocative, nuke-adulating North Korea is here to stay. The full essay follows the jump.

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