North Korea Trump Cards

With three American detainees just returned from North Korea and a meeting date with Kim Jong-un now set, Donald Trump is feeling more positive than ever about achieving a historic peace agreement with Pyongyang. If his team plans well and avoids overconfidence, it just might work.

In the negotiation games to come, Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump each come with their own set of cards to play. Photo: Trillions

For the most part, with respect to North Korea at least, President Donald Trump has a lot to feel good about.

The most recent good news came with the early morning hours of May 10, former prisoners Kim Dong-chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim landed at an American airbase. They had been released, apparently as a sign of good faith in the U.S.-North Korean negotiations, after conversations with newly-appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The other item which crossed the wires the same day was that the location and date for the formal meeting between Supreme Leader Kim and President Trump has been set. It will be in Singapore and is scheduled to happen on June 12.

Trump is getting positive press for his high-pressure, high-threat approach to the way he had dealt with Kim, especially over most of 2017. As Kim escalated his nuclear weapons testing and development to higher and higher levels, Trump continued his public pronouncements which suggested the U.S. was more than prepared for a military strike if that’s what it took to force North Korea’s to stand down. Trump carried out much of this with little consultation with other allies in the region, something which brought frustration with it in Asia and praise from his ‘base’ at home in the U.S.

In parallel, Kim initiated talks with South Korea. Those resulted first with some joint and mostly-symbolic partnering at the Winter Olympics in Seoul. The follow-up conversations were more significant. They included discussions of Kim shelving his nuclear weapons development program for the moment, along with the announcement that both Koreas were agreeing to a formal end to the 7 decade-long war between the two countries.

Behind the scenes, Kim was also engaged in multiple conversations with other important players. He has now met twice with China’s President Xi Jinping. Once was before the South Korea talks started, and once just happened. Based on the little which has leaked of those conversations, it appears President Xi is providing some coaching and clarifying things China needs from North Korea. It is fair to assume Xi and Kim are more tightly connected on what will be happening with the U.S. negotiations than most of the world fully understands right now.

On the U.S. side of the negotiations, Trump wants to see North Korea do more than just shelve his nuclear weapons program. He wants it completely stopped. What Trump brings in his own hand for negotiations includes easing trade sanctions with the country and possible foreign aid of some sort.

On North Korea’s side, with the main bargaining item it has held for so long being its weapons program, it is hard to imagine it would completely abandon its nuclear program as an offering point. It is far more likely instead for Kim to offer stopping further development. That is especially easy to do right now since apparently its testing site collapsed recently from overuse. Another possibility, one skeptics think North Korea might suggest, is to offer complete abandonment of its nuclear weapons program but still keep something going quietly and hidden away from public eye. With Trump’s belief that he just ‘won big’ in cancelling the Iran agreement based on beliefs the country was likely still doing a lot behind the scenes, it is likely the U.S. side will be watching carefully if North Korea attempts something like this in their own negotiations.

Part of what North Korea wants is of course the easing of sanctions. It has made it clear, however, that if it gives anything up regarding its weapons program, it also wants the U.S. military presence nearby – both in terms of military bases and naval drills conducted in partnership with South Korea – greatly diminished. It is fair to say the U.S. is likely going to have a major problem making any substantive reductions in military presence in the area, but once again it might promise something which is more ‘smoke and mirrors’ than substance, perhaps in the form of less joint military exercises less often.

China is another big party in these negotiations. Even if that country is not officially at the table, it may demand some concessions of its own from the U.S., perhaps in return for putting some pressure on Kim to concede a bit more than he might want to as the discussions proceed. China’s agreement is also very much needed regarding changes to easing trade sanctions with North Korea.

The U.S. is at this point in the unexpected position of being able to negotiate something very important and lasting for the region. Trump just needs to realize he is not the only one with some big cards to play in this game. As Kim has maneuvered himself into a position of more respect and regional connections, he also still has some Trump cards of his own left.