Paul Pillar

The Korea Talks and Why Policy Processes Matter

In July 1951, armistice talks began that eventually, after two years of difficult negotiations, would halt the Korean War.  The locale was the city of Kaesong, which was just south of the 38th parallel but on the North Korean/Chinese side of the front line.  The lead negotiator for United Nations forces was U.S. Navy Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy.  (After his death, the Navy honored Joy by naming a destroyer after him—a warship that in 1964 would be involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a key event in the U.S. entry into the Vietnam War.)  Joy quickly observed how thoroughly the North Koreans wrung every advantage they could from the talks.  They had sawed down the legs of Turner’s chair so that he would be lower than the North Korean general who was his counterpart on the other side of the table.  The North Korean one-upmanship continued.  When, for example, the United Nations side placed a small version of its flag on the negotiating table, after the next recess a conspicuously larger North Korean flag appeared.

If talks this year between the United States and North Korea became mainly a contest in symbolism—a manipulation of the optics of face-to-face confrontation at the presidential level—then the advantage lies with the North Koreans.  They have been playing that game a long time and are good at it.  If Donald Trump believes he can come out on top in the face-to-face game because of his self-described deal-making prowess or because he is a bigger kid on the block than Little Rocket Man or because of some other metric defined at the interpersonal level, then he is almost certainly mistaken.

The prospective talks, if they ever take place, are nonetheless on balance welcome.  They are better than most of the imaginable alternative ways in which U.S.-North Korean relations might develop over the next several months.  As Winston Churchill put it, “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war”.

Trump’s decision has thrown for a loop those, mostly on the right side of the American political spectrum, who customarily and mistakenly regard talks with adversaries as a “reward” being bestowed on the adversary rather than the United States pursuing its own interests with the tool of diplomacy.  An irony is that a prospective Kim-Trump meeting comes closer to constituting a real “reward” for the adversary than is true of most other instances in which that notion has been voiced.  Current rhetoric in defense of Trump’s decision about how greater “pressure” on North Korea brought Pyongyang around is laughable, given that the North Koreans have wanted such a meeting for years.  The closest they previously came was late in Bill Clinton’s administration, when they got a visit from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright but never snagged Clinton himself.  Now Kim will be able to present himself as on a par with the most powerful leader on the planet.

Related to customary rhetoric about not rewarding adversaries has been rhetoric about not engaging other states without the United States getting something in return.  We heard much of that kind of rhetoric, for example, when Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.  (What the United States actually got from the decision on Cuba was a move away from a half-century of failed policy that meant only embarrassment and isolation for the United States, and a move toward opening economic opportunities for U.S. business).  In recent weeks Trump has bestowed two big rewards on foreign governments with little or nothing in return.  The first was his move regarding Jerusalem, which was a gift to the right-wing government of Israel and for which that government did not have to do anything at all in return.  (The move also has meant more isolation of the United States, rather than less, as was the case with Obama’s recognition of Cuba.)  Now there is the promised meeting with Kim, who has only talked about pausing nuclear and missile tests (a pause that those programs, given their recent rapid pace, probably were ready for anyway) and has said that he “understands” U.S.-South Korean military exercises going ahead—exercises he would not be able to stop anyway.

The most worrisome aspect of what the prospective summit meeting might lead to is something else: Trump’s impulsive, personal, and erratic way of making decisions, which leaves little or no room for an orderly policy process to help the president arrive at the best decisions.  Foreign policy bureaucracies exist for good reasons that involve making as well as executing policy, and Trump repeatedly has shown his failure to understand or recognize those reasons.  His attitude is reflected not only in specific decisions in which he blows off advisers, such as the recent one on steel and aluminum tariffs, but also in his insouciance about large numbers of senior-level vacancies because, he says, he is the only one who matters.  In the same vein, and in the same week as the announcement about the North Korean meeting, presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner—he of the downgraded interim security clearance and absence of foreign policy or governmental experience—traveled to Mexico and met with the president and foreign minister while excluding the highly experienced U.S. ambassador from the meetings.