Is Trump Walking into a Trap?

As the president prepares for his on-again-off-again summit with North Korea‘s leader, Fletcher’s Sung-Yoon Lee examines the possible risks and rewards
Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Kim Jong-Un in North Korea
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Pyongyang on May 9. “I’d still take the view that North Korea’s calling the shots,” said Professor Sung-Yoon Lee. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service
May 31, 2018

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President Trump abruptly canceled a high-stakes summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un last week, but it appears the meeting may still move forward. On Sunday, Trump tweeted that U.S. officials had arrived in North Korea to make arrangement for the June 12 summit in Singapore and on Wednesday, former North Korean intelligence chief Kim Yong-Chol, a top advisor to the North’s leader, arrived in the United States to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

To understand the promise and perils of this much-anticipated summit, we spoke with Sung-Yoon Lee, F94, F98, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at the Fletcher School. Lee cautioned that while the summit may still happen, it’s not likely to lead to the denuclearization of North Korea that the Trump administration seeks. Instead, he argued, the president may be “walking into a trap” and the North Korean leader may continue to repeat his country’s well-honed strategy of “provoke, placate, reap the rewards.”

Tufts Now: What do you think Trump achieved by backing out of the summit? Was it a smart move?

Sung-Yoon Lee: Trump’s sudden snub of Kim Jong-Un via that unconventional love letter came totally as a shock to the world. The U.S. has never walked away from a scheduled meeting with North Korea. It’s always been North Korea that’s been playing hard to get.

I think Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon were really spooked. Moon was here literally forty-eight hours before, in the Oval Office, trying to persuade Trump to go ahead with a meeting. I’m sure Moon took offense and was caught off guard.

It was, to put a positive spin on it, new leverage gained by the U.S., by playing hard to get for a change, getting North Korea to chase the U.S. for a change, but that leverage was short-lived, all of twenty-four hours. The very next day, Trump essentially said, “OK, let’s meet; I’m going to Singapore.”

What does each side stand to gain by going forward with the meeting?

There are political victories to be gained by both men—far more for Kim Jong-Un than for President Trump. Trump will have his historic moment in Singapore, he’ll try to sell this as his leadership—his tough rhetoric, his maximum pressure—that got the antisocial North Korean leader to come out of his shell and into the world of the international community, how Trump has tamed Kim and gotten Kim to pledge to denuclearization. That’s a short-term political victory for Trump, although it will most likely come back to haunt him.

Kim, on the other hand, has real substantive gains already. Just by flashing smiles and twice meeting both the South Korean leader and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-Un has effected the most dramatic image makeover in history in a matter of a few months. He has gone from a ruthless dictator and international pariah—Trump called him “Rocket Man,” “maniac,” and “madman” just six or seven months ago—and in recent weeks Trump has referred to him as “very honorable” and “very gracious.”

Trump threatened last week, with his snub, that he was going to roll out new sanctions against North Korea, with thirty-three new designations. But the latest news is that the new sanctions have been put on hold indefinitely because now there’s momentum for the summit to take place.  

Watch a conversation in February between Professor Sung-Yoon Lee and Fletcher School Dean James Stavridis about North Korea.

Right after Trump announced he was cancelling the summit, you argued that he should not “go wobbly” on backing out. Should he have waited longer before sounding so conciliatory?

I think so. He really should have played hard to get for at least a week, to see where North Korea stands and what they’re willing to concede.

What do you think of the concessions North Korea has made, such as releasing three U.S. prisoners and decommissioning a nuclear testing site?

All Kim Jong-Un has “conceded,” thus far, is that—whereas for years he said denuclearization is off the table—now he’s changed his tune and he’s saying “I’m amenable to denuclearization talks and I have decided to hold off on further ballistic missile and nuclear tests.” Many people are encouraged by that statement, when in reality the mere utterance of abstention from prohibited activities does not a concession make. It’s like an international criminal declaring, “I’m going to hold off on killing people for the time being.”

The releasing of prisoners? They would have been released anyway. Those prisoners should never have been in prison in the first place, so I don’t think that’s a real concession. The decommissioning of the nuclear test site last week, is that a real concession? North Korea has no reason to conduct another underground test, because they’ve made their point with six to date. That testing site is no longer needed.

I don’t see any real concession made thus far by North Korea. I see a lot of smokescreen, I see a lot of gestures goading the U.S. into believing that this time is going to be different.

What would be more convincing indicators of a willingness to change?

How about removing some of the tens of thousands of cannons trained on the South? How about redeploying some of the roughly 700,000 North Korean troops very close to the border with South Korea? How about releasing all foreign detainees? How about releasing some Japanese abductees? How about releasing their own political prisoners—if not all 100,000 of them, maybe a few hundred? How about allowing Korean families divided by the border the very basic privilege of exchange of letters, a phone call every month? These would be some examples of real concessions, meaningful action. I’ve not seen any.

What is North Korea’s goal for this summit, and how likely is it to succeed?

North Korea insists on “the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” which means the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, eliminating any possibility of the re-introduction of U.S. nuclear assets—submarines, bombers, or tactical nukes. It means getting the U.S. to lift the nuclear umbrella from the region. The way to get to that nirvana when Americans are gone is first, to establish your threat credibility, then de-escalate, and engage the U.S. in protracted, open-ended negotiations without reaching a final resolution. So, dangle the bait—the possibility of denuclearization of North Korea—and then many other goodies come along the way, like aid, food, fuel, cash.

It’s a two-act play: first, a period of relentless provocations, followed by a peace ploy. Provoke, placate, reap the rewards. I see no signs of this stopping any time soon, because it really works.

If the summit doesn’t happen, who’s the winner?

I think the U.S. has more to win than North Korea. Once you have your summit photo op, you can’t press other nations to continue to enforce sanctions. You’ve lost your leverage. I don’t believe one year of meaningful sanctions enforcement is enough to get North Korea to change. It will take at least three years, probably longer.

So Trump agreed to meet too soon?

I think it was very premature. Once the momentum shifts toward dialogue, which it already has, I think, it will be very hard to enforce sanctions again.

I’d still take the view that North Korea’s calling the shots. Except for that brief twenty-four-hour window when North Korea felt a bit spooked by Trump’s snub, North Korea is back in charge now. I don’t think Trump really realizes it. Moved by hubris, patronization of North Koreans, and maybe a desire to win the Nobel Peace Prize and make history, I think he’s walking into a trap.

Politically it will be quite difficult for Trump to scuttle a deal that he has endorsed, to walk away from that deal. So that’s advantage North Korea.

Trump seems to hope that the summit will lead to a deal in which North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons program—what’s often called complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. Will he succeed?

No one in his right mind would presume that it’s possible for conventional nuclear diplomacy to get any of the other eight nuclear powers to give it up—India, Pakistan, Israel, the permanent members of the Security Council—but when it comes to weird, strange, backward, small, poor, aid-dependent North Korea, some still harbor that hope. I’ve always maintained that, because they have nothing else, they will never give it up. It is exceedingly unlikely to happen.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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