What price a deal?
US President Donald Trump meets South Korean President Moon Jae-in today with the question of whether the proposed 12 June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will actually take place. I certainly do not rule out this possibility but I believe that the majority of the commentariat is misreading the intention of Pyongyang’s recent hissy fit (which is fair enough in many ways given past experience of dealing with the regime there).
My 31 March article for The Global Lead set out four scenarios around the proposed Kim Jong-un/Donald Trump summit, among which I have recently been giving — and still give — just a 10% to its not taking place. Of the three scenarios for what I think will transpire if it does happen, 2C reads as follows:
“The summit takes place and agreement is reached after Mr Trump accepts the majority of Kim Jong-un’s conditions for denuclearisation
I am really surprised that — outside Japan at least — this scenario seems to be being given very little consideration at present. Although there is some acknowledgement that Mr Trump, in contrast to past presidents, could conceivably agree to complete withdrawal of US forces from the Korean peninsula etc, it is appears to be being treated as a very slim tail risk.
My personal view is that at least some commentators are forgetting a potentially key point here, ie Mr Trump’s personal approval rating. As I have explained in past articles, in general this goes up when he delivers on his pre-election promises and down when he fails in this respect. Not only did he claim during his campaign that he would sit down with Kim Jong-un “over a burger” and do a deal; on several times he committed to withdraw all US forces from South Korea (and Japan) unless the full costs of the US security guarantees was met. I can’t help but think that Mr Trump could see it as a (quick) win-win if he were to return to Washington having concluded “the deal of the century” with North Korea AND fulfilled his pre-election pledge vis à vis South Korea.
The damage which this would do to America’s standing across much of Asia (and perhaps particularly in Japan) — far worse than withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — would likely be lost on him. And he would, in my view, be unlikely to be too concerned about ‘technicalities’ such as verifying that Kim Jong-un was sticking to his side of the bargain.
Given that this is the self-acclaimed ‘world’s greatest dealmaker’ we are talking about, I have to give this scenario a relatively high 30% probability.”
Unsurprisingly, this got some pushback, including from a number of individuals whose expertise in this area I greatly respect. And, I must admit, I did revisit the case I had put forward very carefully — especially in the light of Michael Pompeo’s appointment as Secretary of State and John Bolton’s as National Security Advisor. Nevertheless, and even though this was something of a ‘gut instinct’ call, I elected to stand my ground. In the light of ‘events’ over the past ten days or so, I am very glad I did.
Given all the uncertainties around the proposed summit still, it would be going too far to say that these have left me feeling vindicated. But they have caused me to question whether, even though I am not about to start fiddling around with my established probabilities for the summit, I may have underestimated Mr Trump’s readiness to make major concessions in the interests of striking a more or less immediate deal of some sort.
[Note (added on 23 May): In the light of the news flow after the Moon Jae-in/Donald Trump summit it may also be that, at 10%, I have underestimated the probability of the Kim Jong-un/Donald Trump summit not taking place — or, at least, not on 12 June. However, I belong to the school of thought which reckons that the summit is now too important to both leaders for it not to happen at all. Indeed, I think that threatening that the US could pull out is tactically absolutely the right response from Mr Trump to Pyongyang's shenanigans last week. And I frankly doubt that his (publicly unstated as of yet) preconditions for the summit to go ahead on 12 June are particularly onerous as far as Pyongyang is concerned. But the possibility of a delay of some sort at least may be higher than 10% nevertheless.]
Regular readers will know that I have persistently argued that Kim Jong-un has been playing a very smart diplomatic game since at least the start of the year, effectively ‘calling the shots’. In my opinion this was very much the case when North Korea threatened last week to cancel the summit. I don’t doubt that Pyongyang is indeed unhappy with Mr Bolton’s call for “Libya-style” denuclearisation by North Korea. And the North Koreans may have been genuinely surprised and unsettled by the scale of the joint South Korea/US military exercises, Max Thunder. But I rather think these two things gave them a convenient pretext to threaten a major spanner in the works with three related objectives in particular in mind, ie:
(a)To assess generally just how badly Mr Trump wants the summit to take place;
(b)To see if they could get the hawkish Mr Bolton completely removed from the process as his absence from the summit table would likely make it easier to wrest concessions from his boss; and
(c) In the words of former US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson “to defuse” the denuclearisation issue on which they were likely feeling increasingly cornered..
[Note: Indeed, it may be that Kim Jong-un shares a view popular with some members of the commentariat in the US that Mr Bolton was actually trying to undermine the President and prevent the summit from even taking place out of concern that the latter might give too much away. Even though I am not one for conspiracy theories, I would not personally rule out this possibility. After all, Mr Bolton is no national security tyro and more than smart enough to understand that demands for ‘Libya-style’ denuclearisation are anathema to Pyongyang and always likely to provoke a dramatic reaction. Then again, Vice President Mike Pence's 23 May reference to Libya may point to something rather different, ie that the Trump Administration is convinced that it can bully and threaten its way to achieving its objectives (which would not be inconsistent with what we are seeing in other areas, eg and notably over Iran. Of course, I doubt the two possible interpretations are mutually incompatible.]
Whether they succeed with the second and third of these possible (probable?) aims remains to be seen. But they clearly have their answer to the first, ie Mr Trump really does want this summit to take place (as, indeed, does Kim Jong-un given the prestige he would garner from being the first ever North Korean leader to meet with a US president, quite apart from any substantive benefits which may accrue). Consider.
- No sooner had the North Koreans kicked up about Mr Bolton’s references to Libya than Mr Trump promptly contradicted his National Security Advisor. To be fair, it is hardly unusual, for the President to contradict his senior advisors publicly (and even his own previous statements!). But, even by his standards, this was a very clear denunciation.
- The following day, Mr Trump went even further, claiming that if there is a nuclear deal Kim Jong-un will “get protections that would be very strong”, which has been widely interpreted that the US would not only not attempt regime change in North Korea itself (which was as far as Mr Pompeo had gone in his interactions with the regime there) but that the it would actively protect Kim Jong-un from any attempt at regime change.
[Note: It would be interesting — and useful to Kim Jong-un — also to know if Mr Trump genuinely believes that it is solely, or at least largely, his stance which has brought the North Koreans to the verge of the negotiating table — which, as I have written previously, I do not believe to be the case even though tougher sanctions have played their part. If my assessment of Mr Trump’s psychology is correct, he almost certainly does believe this to be the case, which could also be to his disadvantage at the table.]
“[Mr] Trump's efforts to soothe Pyongyang could prevent Kim from following through on the threat to call off the summit. But his words highlighted his eagerness to get a deal — an emotion that even some of Trump's aides fear could lead him to give up too much at the negotiating table.”
If this were not enough evidence of Mr Trump’s eagerness for a deal, Kim Jong-un will likely have been further heartened by recent developments on the China/US trade front. The President’s sudden U-turn on ZTE and US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s 20 May agreement with Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He (on the value of which I am very sceptical) also suggest that Mr Trump simply wants to declare deals ‘done’. Mr Mnuchin’s denials notwithstanding, there is copious evidence that whatever was agreed between him and Liu He (which is far from clear at present) falls a long way short of what the hardliners in the Administration’s trade team, notably Robert Lighthizer and Peter Navarro, are aiming for.
The bottom line? The proverbial ‘events’ over the past few days are good reason for Kim Jong-un to be at least cautiously optimistic about prospects for the summit from his perspective. AND for the hardliners on the US Administration’s national security team to be increasingly nervous.
There may well be many reasons why Mr Trump is so eager. But there are two possibilities in particular which appear to be weighing on him.
First, the Mueller investigation. David Lauter of the Los Angeles Times summed this angle up succinctly in his 18 May Essential Politics note, as follows.
“Whether by insight or coincidence, North Korea's leadership chose the week of the one-year anniversary of Robert S. Mueller III's appointment as special counsel to probe how eager President Trump is to make a nuclear deal.
The answer: Very eager.
[Mr] Trump has made clear in his tweets and remarks that the investigation and the nuclear negotiations are intertwined in his mind.
To him, the ‘witch hunt’ is getting in the way of his efforts to bring about world peace. A successful summit with Kim Jong-un would strengthen his case for ending [Mr] Mueller’s probe, [Mr] Trump believes.”
Second, back to the LA Times’s Mr Bierman, this time to consider the extent to which Mr Trump may be driven by a desire to match Barack Obama by being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (a possibility which has been dangled before him by Moon Jae-in in what I believe we can safely assume was a carefully calculated move relative to his own agenda). In a 16 May article (ie even before Mr Trump’s offer of “protection” for Kim Jong-un), he wrote as follows:
“…for weeks [Mr] Trump has been clear that he views the scheduled June 12 summit with Kim [Jong-un] as potentially a crowning moment… a validation of his disruptive, idiosyncratic approach to world affairs….”
None of which is to suggest that a genuine effort to bring peace to the Korean peninsula is not a worthy cause — it is. Or to imply in any way that Mr Trump (and Kim Jong-un) would not be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize if a genuine and lasting agreement were reached — he clearly would (and much more so, in my view, than was Mr Obama). But, even more so now than before, I do think that there is good reason to wonder just what price Mr Trump would be prepared to pay to secure that Prize purely for his personal gain and glory.