The development first. The FT writes that a South Korean government-backed researcher estimates the international sanctions against North Korea are hitting it harder than most people have thought. That reinforces the view that the desire for sanctions relief is driving Pyongyang to the table and that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign is working. Perhaps the U.S. hand is better than I’ve thought going into a meeting with North Korea. The motivations of the Kim regime are widely debated — Curtis Melvin’s blog post here is a good example of him airing out some skepticism — and while they are important, its intentions are more important.
The general tone of the analysis and commentaries this week seemed more skeptical about prospects for a) a Trump-Kim meeting and b) a successful one. Here’s what stood out:
Bill Pesek, a former Dow Jones colleague now writing for Bloomberg, late this week took a crack at telling a business-reading audience not to get too worked up about prospects for breakthrough. Same song, new verse, he wrote.
Sung-yoon Lee, a Tufts professor who gets quoted in newspapers and put on TV a lot, wrote a great piece for The Hill that takes note of what I have long believed about North Korea and briefly mentioned in my CJR piece in February: that they have manipulated the international media and diplomats into possessing incredibly low expectations for their behavior. Just the title — Kim Jong Un’s Weaponization of Weirdness — is brilliant.
Robert King, the envoy on North Korea human rights during the Obama administration, wrote for CSIS about interactions with North Korean officials that underscore their unwillingness to go along with a rapid reduction in nuclear weapons capabilities, the so-called Libyan model after the deal the U.S. struck with Libya in 2003. The Libyan model is the currently favored approach by Bolton, and presumably Trump. From Bob’s piece:
In May–June of 2011 at the time I was in Pyongyang, Libya was reeling from the effects of the “Arab Spring” across the Maghreb. A popular uprising against Qaddafi was in full eruption, and the capital Tripoli had just fallen to the rebels. Shortly after I left Pyongyang, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Qaddafi. A few months later, Qaddafi was killed when he and a few body guards were surrounded by rebel forces.
“No,” Kim [Kye Gwan, the longtime interlocutor with the U.S.] said to me shaking his finger and emphasizing his words, “we will not follow the example of Libya.”
Side note: One of the interesting details in that piece is that Kim Kye Gwan wrote a note to the widow of Tom Lantos, who visited North Korea, on his death. Diplomacy is personal, too.
Joshua Stanton, whose blog One Free Korea is essential reading in Washington policy circles, waited three weeks to weigh in on the Korea Shock and pretty much dismisses the whole idea of a summit and, particularly, a successful one. He is so succinct:
In reality, a Trump-Kim summit is no more than 40 percent likely to happen at all, no more than 10 percent likely to result in any agreement, and no more than 5 percent likely to result in an agreement that will still be viable when Congress goes into its August recess.
These odds did not improve with the selections of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, which is for the best. At least now, the President has what he lacked when he agreed to the summit in the first place: two tough-minded, bureaucratically savvy, and intelligent advisors in whom he has confidence. They will counsel him to refuse what Kim Jong-un is almost certain to demand (South Korea) and to demand what Kim Jong-un is almost certain to refuse, at least for now: complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. They will also want Pyongyang to dismantle its other WMD threats to our allies, to ourselves, and to innocent children from Aleppo to Kuala Lumpur.
Thus, no deal His Porcine Majesty is likely to offer us this year is a deal we’re likely to take or should, nor is it a deal Congress would support or fund.
An agenda setter (though he would reject the label) in Washington, Stanton in great detail laid out several alternative strategies for keeping up pressure on North Korea. In short, there is plenty more that can be done to wall off North Korea’s financial interactions. Stanton even suggests ways this can be paid for that some people in the administration may not have thought.
Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner, in an op-ed published in the New York Times on Friday, became the latest to confront John Bolton’s belief that a preemptive strike is a tactic that can work with North Korea. They argue that a strike would violate international and U.S. laws. It’s an interesting take but I don’t think the legalisms matter all that much. And ultimately, neither do Sagan and Weiner. “It is too late for such an attack to succeed without unacceptable retaliation. No American preventive strike could guarantee 100 percent effectiveness. If even one North Korean nuclear weapon were to remain and be launched against Seoul, an estimated 622,000 South Koreans would be killed outright. A similar catastrophe could be wrought on Tokyo.”
That’s the bottom line. No conflict since World War II has ever played out on in a developed country. It’s unthinkable and immoral for American leaders to put South Koreans and Japanese on the line like that.