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Opinion

North Korea needs a new approach

Trump must stop grandstanding and take a more considered line at proposed second summit

U.S. President Donald Trump whispers to his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Can he adopt a quieter approach to Pyongyang?   © Reuters

The well-publicized craziness of the Trump White House, vividly depicted in "Fear," the new book by Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, appears to have engulfed U.S. policy toward North Korea.

In one chilling episode reported in "Fear," advisers had to stop President Donald Trump from tweeting that all U.S. military dependents in South Korea should be evacuated -- which Pyongyang would have taken as a signal of imminent war.

The revelation comes as Trump has welcomed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's offer of a second summit after their historic June meeting in Singapore. The White House said on Monday that planning had begun after Trump received a "very warm, positive letter" from Kim.

The U.S. move comes even though hopes generated two months ago that Pyongyang would start implementing pledges to denuclearize by 2021 have all but evaporated.

Even as the two men exchange diplomatic love notes, and Kim promises denuclearization by 2021 diplomacy over scrapping North Korean nuclear weapons remains at an impasse.

Why? It is a tale of incompetence stemming from Trump's narcissism, arrogance and impulsiveness, combined with an apparent return by North Korea to brinkmanship -- not least by continuing its nuclear and missile programs, as documented in a recent report from the International Atomic Energy Authority.

The tragedy is that while Trump's unpredictable, idiosyncratic methods initially proved effective, his policy incoherence has led to an impasse. His thundering war threats alarmed Beijing enough to persuade it to enforce unprecedented economic sanctions. His "fire and fury" hints of a military strike terrified Kim enough to come to the table. And mixed with his personal embrace of Chinese president Xi Jinping and his new pal Kim, Trump opened the door to possible progress.

But the opening was not connected to any wider, well-conceived diplomatic process to translate aspirations into results. The Singapore joint statement contained only vague goals -- including Kim's pledge to "work toward" denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Trump to whom the summit was more Reality TV than strategy, unwittingly gave Kim the prize of legitimacy by meeting and sweetened it with U.S. suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises, yet got nothing in return. Moreover, the summit was seen by Beijing and Moscow as a signal to improve ties to Pyongyang. The enforcement of economic sanctions has eased, and U.S. leverage is reduced. If diplomacy fails, Trump is unlikely to win international backing to restore "maximum pressure."

A follow-on trip to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proved a disaster. North Korea denounced as "gangster tactics" Pompeo's plans for a roadmap calling for Pyongyang to give up 60%-70% of its nuclear weapons in six to nine months. Sanctions would be eased thereafter, but few other benefits were offered.

Thus, nuclear diplomacy is stuck, even as Trump and Kim prepare for a new summit. It has become more obvious is that Trump is at odds with his own Korea policy team. In June, he announced on a whim, the suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises without informing his secretary of defense or Seoul.

In late August, only 24 hours after it was announced that Pompeo would leave for Pyongyang for a fourth visit, Trump tweeted the trip's cancellation. And although the reason was a note from a top North Korean aide to Kim suggesting the visit would not be successful, Trump blamed it on China, linked it to the trade war, and said diplomacy would only restart after the U.S.-China trade conflict was resolved.

The problem of Trump and his own government apparatus pursuing different approaches is not unique to Asia policy. But in the light of the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy, it is particularly worrisome.

Despite Trump's heaping praise on Kim tweet after tweet, Pompeo and his Korea team worry that North Korea is retreating from a strategic choice to abandon its nuclear weapons in return for peace and economic development. Pyongyang, with support from Seoul, has been calling for a declaration of the end of the Korean War. This would lack the legal standing of a peace treaty, and many are puzzled as to why Kim insists on it.

Nonetheless, in an effort to engage in a diplomatic process, the U.S., according to well-placed sources, has indicated to North Korea an interest in pursuing "declaration for declaration."

The idea is that the U.S. and South Korea would agree to a declaration ending the Korean War in exchange for Pyongyang providing the International Atomic Energy Agency with a declaration of its inventory of nuclear materials and facilities and allow the United Nations agency to fashion a full inspection regime. Previous nuclear deals with North Korea have collapsed over the issue of verification and transparency. Kim's reluctance this time around is not a good sign.

Where do we go from here? U.S. interest in a "declaration-for-declaration" may indicate the first step in a U.S. course correction. To date, the Trump administration has concentrated diplomacy bilaterally as a U.S.-North Korea affair, overestimated its leverage, seeking immediate gratification and trying to dictate terms. Washington has sought to avoid the difficult give-and-take bargaining that will almost certainly be necessary to achieve success.

Negotiating a "declaration-for declaration' could be the first stage of creating a negotiating framework. As North Korea seeks security and economic benefits, the effort would require sustained coordination and a sequencing of Pyongyang concessions for wider benefits, first with South Korea, and then other key states -- China, Russia and Japan.

It is not difficult to envisage a parallel process linking a dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons program to a four-party diplomatic negotiation involving the U.S., South Korea, North Korea and China aimed at securing a formal peace treaty, including conventional arms reductions. This might create conditions for real peace, not just a piece of paper. South Korea, China and Russia are already discussing road, rail and other infrastructure projects with Pyongyang. If sequenced with nuclear negotiations, this could offer Kim tempting incentives.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in views his country as a mediator between the U.S. and North Korea. Moon will almost certainly use his own September 18th summit with Kim not just to advance reconciliation, but to press for progress on denuclearization.

If the U.S. is indeed prepared for a fresh approach, the Moon-Kim summit may help catalyze renewed nuclear diplomacy -- if they can stop Trump from tweeting long enough, and if the U.S. shift helps persuade a risk-averse Kim to make a strategic choice and commit to real denuclearization. Two very big "if's." But absent that, the alternatives are living with a de facto nuclear North Korea or new risks of military confrontation.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Twitter: @Rmanning4

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