Progress, or Premonition? Trump’s Cabinet Shakeup Raises the Stakes of North Korean Negotiations

By Andrew Doris

President Trump jolted the Korean standoff with a slew of rapid and unexpected changes last month, in one of the busiest weeks for US-North Korean relations in decades. The chaos began on the evening of March 8th, when a South Korean envoy to Washington made a startling announcement from the White House driveway: President Trump had agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.  Initially, this seemed a departure from longstanding US policy that formal talks were not possible until after the rogue North Korean state dismantled its nuclear program.


The following day, however, the White House – while confirming the talks were being planned – seemingly denied any reversal of that precondition, insisting the meeting would happen after North Korea made “concrete steps” toward denuclearization.  And those steps appeared plausible later that weekend, when South Korean media reported that Kim Jong Un sought a “peace treaty” with the United States, including a permanent US Embassy in Pyongyang.  The reports were unverified, but enough to spur optimism that a breakthrough was imminent – briefly.

A Graffiti in Austria
A graffiti in Austria © Bwag/Wikimedia


Less than 24 hours later, that optimism turned to confusion when Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via Twitter and nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement.  Widely seen as a foreign policy hawk, Pompeo made headlines last July for speaking fondly of the prospect of regime change in North Korea, and refusing to rule out preemptive military action to achieve it.  The change came two weeks after the surprise retirement of Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korean policy.  Like Tillerson, Yun was seen as an advocate for diplomacy over military might.


The whirlwind continued on March 15th, when CNN and the Washington Post reported National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster would also be fired, and replaced by former UN Ambassador John Bolton.  The administration initially denied the reports, only to prove them correct by making the move official one week later. A dramatic, standoffish, and ultra-hawkish relic of the Bush Administration with a history of pressuring intelligence officials to misstate evidence, Bolton has forcefully and repeatedly argued the United States should bomb North Korea preemptively; his response to the close of the so-called “Peace Olympics” was to pen a February 28th editorial in the Wall Street Journal titled The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”


How to make sense of all this?  Is Trump pining for war, or giving negotiations a chance?  Is North Korea serious about ending the armistice, or buying time to develop its nuclear research in secret?  Will they ever de-nuke on terms the US finds acceptable?  Or will hastily conceived and poorly planned negotiations end in failure?  If the talks fail, what happens next?  Will the talks even happen – and if so, where, when, and on what conditions?


Broadly speaking, the situation has three possible outcomes:


  1. Fruitful talks are held, and both sides make progress towards peace.


Such progress could take a variety of forms, with some more preferable to American interests than others.  Ideally, Kim Jong-Un would forfeit his nuclear ambitions in exchange for a peace treaty ending the armistice and normalizing relations, the lifting of sanctions, and the cessation of peninsula-wide military training exercises.  If the US needs to sweeten the deal, it could offer to pay for North Korean denuclearization through a modified Megatons-to-Megawatts program, as well as to close some US military bases and reduce troop levels in South Korea (ideally without withdrawing troops from the peninsula entirely).  China could chip in by formally assuring North Korea of its protection.

Such a deal would enable North Korea to further its primary objective (regime survival) while finally winning a begrudging acceptance as a member of the international community, with corresponding opportunities for economic growth and improved standard of living. The South would advance its primary objective (stable peace) without feeling endangered or abandoned by its longtime protector and ally. And the US would achieve its primary objective (preventing a nuclear North Korea) without having to start another disastrous foreign war, and without giving up its presence in the region altogether. All three sides could sell it as a win.

Alternatively, Trump’s desperation for a perceived win may lead him him to cave too much to North Korea – perhaps by withdrawing all US troops from the peninsula, as he threatened to do in the campaign, or by failing to insist on adequate UN oversight to guarantee complete and permanent denuclearization.  This is less than ideal for the US because it would abandon a crucial ally, cast doubt on American willingness to defend its other allies, and cede ground to China in a pivotal region – only to potentially watch North Korea break its promises and re-nuclearize sometime in the future.

More likely, though, is that no grand deal will emerge from a single face-to-face summit. Still, outcome #1 is achieved so long as the talks produce sustainable momentum towards peace.  This is the best case-scenario for all sides.


  1. Fruitful talks prove impossible, so the conflict reverts to the status quo.


Unfortunately, there is good reason to be skeptical that these talks will occur at all, and even more reason to doubt they will be productive.  The first obstacles are the combined military training exercises – titled “Foal Eagle” and “Key Resolve” – which the US and South Korean militaries are planning in April.  These exercises have taken place on a regular semi-annual basis for decades, but North Korea portrays them as threatening provocations which justify its nuclear program; in recent years, it has responded with concurrent missile testing.  Just as the US formerly listed denuclearization as a precondition for talks, North Korea has demanded the end of these exercises – not to mention the removal of US troops from South Korea altogether – as its own precondition.  Yet after Trump’s surprise agreement to meet Kim Jong Un, administration officials clarified that the military exercises will continue as planned.

The White House apparently expects Kim Jong Un to respond to this spring’s exercise NOT with his customary show of force, but by taking meaningful steps in the opposite direction.  If that’s true – that North Korea essentially agreed to Western preconditions for talks, without imposing any of their own – it marks an incredible breakthrough in the standoff that could arguably become Trump’s flagship foreign policy accomplishment.  But to many, it seems too good to be true, particularly when coupled with the disjointed way in which the plans were announced, with North Korea’s silence on the matter, and with President Trump’s infamous flair for the dramatic at the expense of diplomatic caution.


Next there are the logistical difficulties of the talks themselves. Who will be present at these talks besides Trump and Kim Jong Un?  South Korea will likely want a seat at the table; will China be invited? Where will they meet?  Prior to this week’s surprise visit to China, Kim Jong Un had never left North Korea since assuming power in 2011; would Trump agree to meet in Pyongyang, or would he see that as an emasculating powerplay? What are the “concrete steps” Trump expects to see, and who verifies whether they’ve been taken?  None of this was settled beforehand, because Trump agreed to these talks suddenly, with minimal input from diplomatic advisors (Tillerson was in Africa at the time and was not consulted).  Publicly agreeing to things before the details of the agreement are established carries risk that those details will prove a bigger devil than initially foreseen.

A third obstacle is Trump’s looming threat to back out of the Iran nuclear deal signed by President Obama in 2015.  By most accounts Iran has abided by its end of the bargain so far.  But Trump has repeatedly criticized the deal, and in May – around the same time he hopes to talk to North Korea – he faces a self-imposed decision point on whether to waive Iranian sanctions, or cancel the deal for good. And while the recently deposed Rex Tillerson had advised Trump to stay in the deal, new State Secretary nominee Mike Pompeo is a strident critic; the change may indicate Trump is leaning towards backing out.  If he does, it would decimate the US’s credibility to negotiate denuclearization with a North Korean regime already wary of American caprice in foreign affairs.

Fourth, China – Pyongyang’s only real ally – will surely take a keen interest in the negotiations. In light of this, Trump’s recent decision to hit China with $50 billion in tariffs seems rather more antagonistic than may be productive. Bloomberg reports that Kim Jong Un is secretly visiting China at this very moment. If Chinese president Xi Jinping feels peeved at Trump or left out of the proceedings, he may hamstring North Korea’s deal-making flexibility with some conditions of his own.
Should these new obstacles prove surmountable, the traditional ones may remain stubborn.  The status quo has persisted in part because the countries involved prefer it to any alternative previously deemed feasible.  The DPRK wants survival, and thinks nothing can guarantee its survival as effectively as a nuclear deterrent; so, they’ve acquired one. South Korea wants peace, already has it, and feels no need to jeopardize it in pursuit of anything else; so, they haven’t.  The United States wants lots of things – security at home, regional influence, global soft power, financial solvency, the spread of democracy, and also the denuclearization of North Korea – but can’t risk all the former to achieve the latter; so, they haven’t. Simply discussing these issues may not change the underlying calculus of states in conflict.  The nations involved have not been able to negotiate a peace treaty for the past 65 years, and it isn’t clear what would make them better able to do so now.


  1. Fruitful talks prove impossible – prompting Trump to do something rash.


With all of that in mind, it’s at least as likely that talks with North Korea prove futile as it is that they become an important step towards peace.  But there is also third, more worrisome interpretation of last month’s news: agreeing to talks with North Korea now might strengthen the pretense for war later.  The scenario could play out like this:


Replacing Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State makes it considerably more likely that the US backs out of the Iran deal.  Backing out of a negotiated denuclearization with Iran less than three years after the agreement was signed would damage the US’s credibility to negotiate denuclearization with North Korea. If Trump fails to negotiate denuclearization with North Korea at the highly publicized talks he just agreed to, he will lose face in the media (and could potentially feel slighted by Kim Jong-Un’s lack of trust, and/or frustrated by talks “not working.”) If Trump loses face in the media from a highly public diplomatic failure, he may scramble to reframe that failure as proof he was right all along about North Korea only understanding force.  And when he does so, one can safely assume that new National Security Advisor John Bolton will tell him he needs to “look strong” in the face of North Korean intransigence, likely in the form of the preemptive strike Bolton advocates.
If there’s one thing Trump both understands and cares about, it’s how his actions will be portrayed in the news.  Should talks break down, the idea of a military strike might grow on him for precisely that reason: it would convert criticism of his perceived failure into rapt 24/7 coverage of his decisive response. The “rally around the flag” affect is powerful, and Trump remembers the boost in approval rating he received from the Syrian missile strikes. Impulsively starting a war for the attention of it may not be beneath him, particularly when Bolton gives him such a loud and passionate strategic excuse.


But John Bolton is dangerously wrong, and the consequences of following his advice would be nothing short of catastrophic.  North Korea has the world’s fourth largest military, including thousands of hardened artillery pieces capable of firing ten-thousand rounds a minute.  30 million South Koreans live within range of those artillery pieces, including the entire greater Seoul metropolitan area.  A 2017 Congressional report estimated that if war began, the early days of the fighting alone could kill up to 300,000 people: roughly the entire civilian death toll of the Iraq War, in mere days, in a first-world allied country the United States has sworn to protect.  This is assuming North Korea does not use nuclear, chemical, nor biological weapons.

As the body count rose, the global economy would tank, while the local economy became rubble.  A 2010 RAND report put the economic cost of a conventional war at up to 70 percent of South Korea’s GDP (to say nothing of the impact on Japan, nor the rest of a region responsible for nearly a fifth of global economic output).  And far from advancing US interests in the region, a preemptive military strike would ultimately devastate them.  From the ashes of its former-ally would arise a seething hatred of the reckless, uninvited American aggression that caused such an unthinkable humanitarian tragedy.  After 65 years of partnership, the US’s betrayed friends would rush to the outstretched arms of China, which would quickly re-posture itself as the champion of regional stability and peace – indeed, as the only responsible superpower left.  On both counts, they would be right.


Thankfully, all of that remains unlikely.  Trump has proven resistant to most hawkish proposals so far, and he may sour on Bolton as he did with his predecessors.  The US remains in the Iran deal for now, and the Senate has not yet confirmed Mike Pompeo as the next State Secretary.  Three weeks after Trump’s announcement, all signs point to these talks happening on schedule; they may well happen, and they may well be fruitful. There is room for optimism yet.  Just beware of the warning signs should the dominos start to fall.  Talks are promising in theory; but if they backfire, the consequences would be devastating.

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