While I find the potential for talks between the U.S. and North Korea very interesting and even promising, I also harbor a good share of skepticism if not cynicism. Kim Jong Un has far more to gain and less to lose than we do.
President Donald Trump is taking a calculated risk in thinking that nothing else has worked in getting the North Koreans to the negotiating table so maybe a summit of the two leaders will produce something constructive. The fact is, Kim has wanted a one-on-one with a U.S. President for a long time. Trump is the only President to accept the offer. (click here for more comprehensive information about the Korean experience https://www.history.com/topics/korean-war)
Please understand that a proposed meeting between the two leaders is not likely to be a negotiation session. It will be a meeting to get to know each other and decide if there is anything to negotiate. Each man will measure the other as they probe for insight into motives and behaviors. Long before they get together, they will have to decide on a time, a place and a date. Then they’ll have to set an agenda. That all sounds simple, but it isn’t because of the political nuances of every step. For example, to decide on where the meeting will take place requires that both couples consider outward appearances. Is Kim traveling to meet Trump? Is Trump traveling to meet Kim? Are they both traveling to a neutral site? The site, once selected, will also have to accommodate the parties traveling with the two presidents along with security personnel and arrangements. Nothing about this meeting will be easy or simple.
Kim Jong Un must show his people that he is on an equal footing with the President of the United States, so having his picture taken with Trump will be incredibly important to him. Just getting Trump to say, “yes,” to the meeting is a victory for Kim but that won’t be enough. He will also want to show his people that he outmaneuvered the American President and got much more than he gave.
So far, we know very little. We are told that Kim has agreed to discuss denuclearization, but whose? It would be most unlikely that they will discuss unilatral denucleariazation. The hermit state will make unrealistic demands of us regarding our nuclear readiness, and our presence on and around the peninsula. Their entire history points to that kind of approach. Ever since the U.S. initial presence on the Korean peninsula in the late 1940s, the Kim regime has feared a U.S. attack. There is no reason for them to have changed in the last couple of months.
Kim will try to use the meeting to enhance his stature in the world. He likely will make outrageous claims and demands that are intended to get under President Trump’s skin. Trump must use restraint and while being firm should take the high road and not engage in tweet storms with the “Dear leader.” But I am getting way ahead of myself. Talking about the agenda now is a little like trying to set your GPS before you have selected a destination.
History is often a good indicator of what to expect, and this situation offers plenty of it. We’ve been in an out of negotiations with the North Koreans for over 50 years but the real, intense, high-stakes experience with them was when the two sides engaged in peace talks from late 1952 until the Korean war shooting stopped in 1953. I well remember reading about the shenanigans of the North (we had no TV yet) and the crazy demands they made before they would even begin to talk. What we know about them is that they are tough, unpredictable, demanding and masters of minutia.
The Korean War, one of our bloodiest, began on June 25, 1950, and stopped on July 27, 1953. There was no peace treaty, only a very fragile cease fire. Troops did not move from their battle-hardened positions, and both sides took advantage of the situation by reinforcing and hardening their positions. There was no peace treaty, only a very fragile cease-fire that has threatened a new military outbreak ever since. The conflict was a see-saw battle over and around the 38th parallel that separated the two countries. Estimates suggest that when the cease-fire took place, some five million Koreans (North and South), mostly innocent civilians, had already perished. Massive U.S. aerial bombardments had nearly destroyed every town in North Korea, and South Korea was left devastated.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, nearly 600,000 of the one million Chinese soldiers that joined the North Koreans died or were wounded in the fight. They also say that North Korea suffered troop losses nearly double those of the south. About 40,000 Americans died as did 240,000 South Korean Soldiers.
An agreement to negotiate an end to the war came early but North Korean intransigence (aided by their Russian and Chinese allies) was responsible for delays, miscommunication, frayed tempers and even expanded hostilities.
The talks that stopped the shooting in Korea in the last century began on July 10, 1951, in Kaesong, a small town just north of the 38th parallel. The site was deemed unsafe, though, due to North Korean troop harassment and was moved to Panmunjom, west of Kaesong, but beyond the reach of the forces from the north. The hurdles to getting to substantive discussions were both monumental and absurdly insignificant. Delays were caused by everything from disagreements over the shape of the negotiating table to the intrusion of armed soldiers, and by temper tantrums, as frustrated and angry negotiators walked out.
Some might say today’s situation is different, that we aren’t involved in a shooting war, and they would be right. It is different, but the stakes are a whole lot higher. In the 1950s the North only had conventional weapons while their two main allies, Russia and China, were nuclear armed. Nuclear war, though, was less a threat then. Now, Kim has his own nukes and his little red button and in a fit of anger could very easily decide to create an incident or ratchet up the tensions in a significant and more deadly manner.
Then, as now, the first step towards settling the conflict was to decide on an agenda for the talks. An agenda usually consists of a half dozen or fewer topics that are at the core of the problem. Usually, the topics are very general. When agreement on an agenda finally came over half a century ago, it included just four items, but it took ten long, acrimonious, meetings to arrive at them.
- Establish a demarcation line and demilitarized zone
- Create specific conditions for an armistice and name neutral countries to oversee it
- Reach an agreement on exchanging prisoners of war
- Offer post-armistice “recommendations” to both sides
The North Koreans were so obstinate some observers thought their goal was to destroy the talks rather than seek a peace treaty. The agenda was just the beginning of a series of delaying tactics that appeared to be aimed at sabotaging the talks.
If you consider the events of over a half century ago you’ll understand that even if Kim and Trump decide where to meet and what to talk about, those agreements will likely have nothing to do with the time, date and place of the real negotiations which will be between diplomats. It is extremely unlikely that Trump and Kim will negotiate anything other than to decide to talk and perhaps play a public relations posturing game with the news media. On the world stage, Kim wins no matter what. He gets to be seen standing as an equal with the President of the U.S. For his image in his land that is a huge deal. Trump, on the other hand, can be seen by the rest of the world as weak just by agreeing to meet with the tinhorn dictator.
There is another risk for Trump. He prides himself on his ability to make and close a deal. He’s not had that chance until now. In this unique situation, Trump will meet with a dictator who has the power to agree to anything without approval from anyone. If Trump comes away from the meetings with nothing, he will look very bad. If, on the other hand, he can get Kim to agree to almost anything without giving up much, Trump will have a victory of sorts. Kim, however, cannot be depended upon to keep his word. His unpredictability is as legendary as his infamy.
President Trump is just as unpredictable. He could easily take offense at a comment, a look or even a word, storm out of the meeting and begin a new Twitter engagement that could spark real hostilities.
The stakes are very high, and these negotiations will not remotely resemble the kind that involves the construction of a new hotel or golf course. Do not think for a moment that the North Koreans will give way to the “Art of the Deal.” They won’t. They don’t live as we do, think like we do or act as we do. Add to that the unpredictability of both leaders and you have negotiations that could just as easily make things worse than they are.
I am glad that President Trump was able to get Kim to the table, but my expectations are very low, not only because of Trump’s unpredictability but because of the Kim family and their past actions. They have proven time and time again that they cannot be trusted.
I hope that for once, Mr. Trump will listen to the career diplomats, our intelligence agencies, and his military advisors. Bluster, bullying and peacock positioning are meaningless juvenile exercises that have no place in negotiations with stakes this high.
We aren’t dealing with rational people, and North Korea believes the same about us. Experience tells us that at this point, both sides are right.
Back in the 50s, the UN negotiating team was headed by Adm. Turner Joy, General Mathew Ridgway’s naval chief. Historians say that these peace talks were among the most prolonged and bizarre in diplomatic history. During the time the talks took place it is estimated there were about 60,000 UN casualties. 22,000 of them were American against almost a quarter of a million Chinese and North Korean casualties. The talks dragged on for over two years with, according to Admiral Joy, “all the speed of a stiff concrete mix.”
This armistice signed on July 27, 1953, formally ended the war in Korea and left the boundaries where they were when the conflict began. All of that bloodshed was for naught. The two countries remain separate and occupy almost the same territory they had when the war began. Tensions have never diminished. The armistice that stopped hostilities didn’t stop the animosity and resulted only in a tense state of [truce ever since. Open warfare is a possibility at any time as each side watches the other looking for an excuse or reason to renew the bloodshed.
We can hope President Trump is successful in reducing tensions and making the world a little safer. If the two sides are talking, everyone is safer. Do not expect that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons that isn’t going to happen. Perhaps, though, we can expect more frequent and honest communication and a reduction in tensions. I’ll settle for that as a very good start.
And from where I sit, that’s the truth