When President Moon Jae-in of South Korea meets with President Donald Trump at the White House this week, he may find himself fighting the urge to pour cold water all over Trump, because that’s what Trump did to the Korea peace process when he met with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi.
Moon has staked his presidency on advancing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, and Trump has staked his bloated ego on the interconnected goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Moon has staked his presidency on advancing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, and Trump has staked his bloated ego on the interconnected goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Moon’s task in upcoming and future talks with Trump can be adequately simplified as painting a glamorous picture of the promised land, wherein Trump can claim his largely undeserved credit for a peaceful, denuclearized Korea—but only, Moon may suggest, if Trump embraces the more incremental, reciprocal negotiating posture that diplomacy needs to succeed.
After reminding Trump of all he has to gain from a comprehensive nuclear agreement with North Korea, a relatively easy task, Moon could try to convince Trump that the administration’s current maximalist approach is doomed to fail. It is doomed because North Korea knows the storied past of U.S. regime change, in particular the story of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who negotiated away his country’s nuclear program only to be brutally murdered by rebels in the wake of a U.S.-backed NATO bombing campaign designed to remove him from power. It is doomed because North Korea’s leaders know that if they don’t secure irreversible security guarantees, they could meet a similar fate. It is doomed because North Korea will not disarm without those security guarantees and without sanctions relief that its people desperately need, all of which will require incremental diplomacy to secure.
Next, Moon could try to turn Trump against one of his own. National Security Advisor John Bolton was widely blamed for torpedoing the Hanoi talks, where he reportedly pushed for an all-or-nothing style agreement. Among other unrealistic demands, Bolton insisted that North Korea sweeten the deal that working groups had all but finalized ahead of the summit by throwing in full disclosure of its chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. Of course, disclosure and eventual dismantlement of those programs are worthwhile goals, and are not unreasonable asks within a broader process of reciprocal diplomacy. But as eleventh-hour demands at the tail end of a high-stakes summit, they look more like torpedoes than goals.
Even a cursory look at Bolton’s track record reveals his disdain for diplomacy, and underscores the danger of giving him a seat at any negotiating table. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement as well as his planned withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty can both be traced back to Bolton. So can the demise of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s nuclear program in place for the better part of a decade before collapsing on the Bush administration’s watch. Writing in his memoir, Bolton shamelessly recalled that North Korea’s efforts to secure a uranium enrichment capability were “the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.” In other words, rather than seeking to address North Korea’s troubling activities by strengthening the agreement, Bolton swung his hammer. Anyone who takes such pride in destroying hard-won arms control agreements should have no role in negotiating them.
Finally, Moon could try to convince Trump that he can employ the incremental approach needed to make any real progress while still claiming credit for a major agreement with North Korea. Ironically, the perfect template for the structure of such a deal already exists. The Iran nuclear agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), evolved from an interim agreement called the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). The interim deal, signed in November of 2013, was a huge deal in and of itself, freezing Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for partial sanctions relief. Notably, it took until April of 2015 for negotiators to secure a framework agreement, the outlines of the final deal, and then until July of 2015 to sign the final agreement, so Moon may also need to extol the virtues of patience to his decidedly impatient counterpart.
Ahead of the Hanoi summit, negotiators appeared to have lined up a series of agreements that, taken together, could well have been billed as an interim agreement, or in Trumpian terms, a terrific deal that no one else could have negotiated—if only Bolton hadn’t brought his trusty hammer. The agreements on the table included the opening of joint liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington, D.C.; partial sanctions relief in exchange for closure of a centerpiece of North Korea’s nuclear program, the Yongbyon facility; the return of more U.S. service member remains from the Korean War; and last but not least, a declaration of the end of the Korean War, an important step toward signing a long-overdue peace agreement to formally end the Korean War and toward meeting North Korea’s desire for security guarantees.
Between the photo ops and fanfare, Moon will likely be urging Trump to put Humpty Dumpty back together again—to go back to the table with North Korea and trust his working level diplomats to give him a similar package of agreements that can be touted as a big deal in its own right, and as a critical step toward a comprehensive deal, which it would be. Trump should heed the sage advice of President Moon, who has much more riding on this peace process than Trump does.