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North Korea summit diplomacy carries risks of war

Failure of the Trump-Kim meeting could trigger military conflict

| China
U.S. President Donald Trump now has exactly the right national security adviser, John Bolton, to help go for the military phase if his summit option fails.   © Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump created shock waves when he announced that he had accepted an offer by North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un to meet for diplomatic talks. China's President Xi Jinping then stole a march on Washington by pulling off his own secret summit with Kim on March 27, even before the date or location of the Trump-Kim meeting has been set. Meanwhile, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea is preparing his own summit with Kim.

Lots of ink has been spilled on the merits and demerits of all these meetings especially Trump's historic decision to talk to Kim. But one key risk has not been given the full examination it deserves: that a failed Trump-Kim summit could lead directly to military conflict.

From the earliest days of the Trump presidency, North Korea has been a foreign policy question that most entangled him and has engaged his time and attention. To his credit, for the first several months, Trump quietly absorbed dozens of intelligence briefings and stayed out of the Twitter-verse while he attempted to think through the options for response and what is the U.S's thorniest foreign policy problem.

Eventually, Trump and his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, developed a two-part strategy for the North Korea problem: apply maximum pressure, including the threat of the use of force, while pursuing a diplomatic exit ramp if the pressure generates movement by Pyongyang toward denuclearization. Trump himself and McMaster evinced more comfort than many others with the threat to use of force, a approach broadly opposed by most of the security establishment, including key actors like Defense Secretary James Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McMaster was essentially the only significant person in the administration willing to meet Trump's demand that the North Korea question be "solved," not managed, through this two-part approach.

All the more bizarre, then, that Trump fired McMaster and hired a new national security adviser, John Bolton, who strongly opposes diplomacy with North Korea. And just to make life even more complicated, Trump slapped huge trade tariffs on China, the one country in the world that can help make the summit a success. In Trump's mind, putting economic pressure on China will increase their willingness to play ball on North Korea. I sincerely doubt Beijing sees it that way.

Nonetheless, the march toward the summit continues. Back channel diplomacy in Europe and elsewhere. Kim has reiterated his willingness in principle to renounce the nuclear program and to halt testing during the period of talks. This has been met by widespread skepticism, and the odds are high that this is purely tactical, though it is impossible at this stage to rule out that it is a result of McMaster's strategy.

To be fair to Trump, the summit did not come at us quite out of the blue, as many have suggested. Well before it emerged as an option, Vice President Michael Pence carried to the Pyeongchang Olympics a message for Kim that the U.S. was prepared to engage in direct diplomacy with the North if the North would signal its willingness to give up its nuclear weapons. The North Koreans reached out to the United Nations to ask for help in exploring possible talks. And Trump sent a diplomatic messenger to Pyongyang to convey his willingness to engage in talks.

None of this should suggest that the summit was planned, per se. For one thing, in normal American diplomatic practice, a willingness to engage in talks would lead initially to exploratory talks at the level of the assistant secretary of state, perhaps the deputy secretary of state, not a meeting with the president. In Trump's world, though, he is the deal-maker, not anyone else.

In the wake of the decision, two broad sets of concerns dominated the press coverage. First and most important, that because a meeting with Trump or a meeting at the White House was a key demand or a key objective for Kim, by agreeing to do the summit Trump had given away his most important leverage. I am not so persuaded of this. Sometimes when the search for stature is important for your opponent, giving him some of that stature up front can ease the way to resolution. It remains to be seen, of course, whether that works in this case or whether Kim pockets the meeting with Trump and returns to his nuclear program.

The second concern was that Trump, in the meeting itself, would give away the candy store; specifically, as he has publicly hinted, that he would be willing to trade away American troop presence in South Korea for an agreement on the nuclear weapons regime. That has the U.S. security establishment extremely concerned, as it should have the South Koreans. A troop withdrawal, once executed, will be politically hard to reverse; whereas Pyongyang has a demonstrated capacity to cheat on nuclear weapons' agreements. The net result of this outcome would be a far more vulnerable situation for Seoul, as well as other security partners throughout the region that depend on American protection. They would suddenly feel more anxious about being sold out by the U.S. for the right price. Trump's Asia advisers scoff at this suggestion and argue that it unfairly implies the president is naive; but these same advisers were blind-sided by the president's decision to agree to the summit, so their dismissal of this concern is not entirely reassuring.

A third, very quiet strand of opinion says, in effect, given the race to conflict that was occurring in the absence of these talks, the summit -- with all the flaws of the decision-making to get there -- leaves us in a far better situation than the race toward what would have been a devastating war. This is fair, but downplays what I believe is the most important risk of all: that the failure of a summit would trigger armed conflict.

This is not idle speculation. The contemporary history of peace negotiations is riddled with examples of failed diplomatic processes leading directly to heightened escalation or dramatic conflict. Throughout the 1990s, for example, a series of peace processes attempted to resolve civil or interstate wars, and in the aftermath of their failure, we saw a rise in the scale of violence between the parties. This occurred in Angola in 1991, when talks between the government and the rebels collapsed and led to the most deadly phase of that long-standing conflict. Similar episodes marred conflict management efforts from Bosnia to Sierra Leone and Kosovo. The most dramatic example was in Rwanda, where it was the dynamics of deal-making leading to the Arusha peace agreement in 1993 and then the rapid breakdown of that peace agreement that led directly to the genocide that consumed Rwanda in 1994.

The reasons for this dynamic are fairly straightforward. When peace processes are tried, even when they are half-baked, they are seen by decision-makers as a test for diplomacy. When they fail, it is not just the specific peace process that has failed, it is diplomacy as a strategy that has failed. Both sides see failure as evidence of the intransigence of the other, and thus of the impossibility of reaching a political settlement. Then the logic of military solutions rises in salience. What's more, the proponents of diplomatic solutions have just been discredited, weakening their hand in what follows. In real politics, nobody in their right mind sits in the Oval Office and says, "I know that peace process failed. Here's my idea. Let's try another one."

If these dynamics take hold, as they have so often before, the failure of a summit could substantially discredit the option of diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula, weak as it already is, and put us directly on the pathway to military conflict.

Of course, these are not black and white situations. There are other examples of failed processes leading only briefly to the resumption of tensions or conflict, followed then by successful talks. But the context for those experiences were ones in which the overall strategy was hinged toward peaceful settlement of the conflict. For example, an eventual 2012 peace agreement (however flawed) between Sudan and South Sudan came after the failure of several previous rounds of negotiations.

Here, that is far less clear. The two leaders could, theoretically, meet, fail to agree on much, but agree to have an ongoing process to resolve the issues; this is probably the best-case outcome. But having built up a public argument that the summit is going to result in Kim agreeing to denuclearization, it is hard to see Trump treating a "let's keep talking" outcome as a success, and he will be roundly criticized for that outcome both externally and internally. Ironically, the main proponent of the summit, President Trump himself, is also the main proponent of military solutions to the conflict. And now, if the summit fails, he will have exactly the right national security adviser to help move forward with the military phase.

Bruce Jones is vice president and director of the Brookings Institution's foreign policy program.

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