In the lead-up to the second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, The Washington Diplomat sat down for a one-on-one with noted scholar and author Van Jackson. He offered his thoughts on the second meeting between the two mercurial leaders and how it might shape U.S.-North Korea relations, as well as the region.
The much-anticipated follow-up to the historic Singapore summit offers Trump the opportunity to choose substance over style. However, Jackson believes that, once again, Trump will choose the latter over the former. He predicts this encore performance will generate more headlines for the former reality television star, but little headway in breaking the nuclear stalemate that has bedeviled the administration since Trump met Kim in Singapore last June.
That meeting came after a series of ballistic missile tests by the North and escalating rhetoric between the two leaders, who lobbed insults at one another and sparked fears of a nuclear showdown.
The Singapore summit raised hopes that Trump’s unconventional, off-the-cuff governing style might finally lead to a breakthrough in the decades-long nuclear impasse with Pyongyang. Tensions have indeed cooled since the summit. Trump canceled military exercises with South Korea and stopped threatening the North with a pre-emptive strike or regime change. Meanwhile, Kim has refrained from further missile or nuclear bomb testing and improved relations with South Korea and China.
But otherwise, there hasn’t been any tangible progress despite Trump’s claims to the contrary. Kim insists that the administration offer sanctions relief and a security guarantee before any denuclearization takes place — the opposite of the U.S. position. Kim has also thus far refused the administration’s demands to provide a full inventory of the North’s nuclear assets.
In fact, recent satellite imagery released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that the North has as many as 20 undisclosed missile sites and may be expanding, not dismantling, its missile program.
And while international sanctions remain in place, the maximum pressure campaign that many credited for bringing Kim to the negotiating table appears to be losing steam, especially as Kim establishes warmer relations with his country’s economic lifeline, China.
All of this confirms what many experts — and U.S. intelligence agencies — have long suspected: that the North will continue its historic pattern of dragging out talks while secretly building up its nuclear arsenal, because it has no intention of unilaterally relinquishing a weapons program it believes is key to the regime’s survival.
Experts also worry that faced with this grim reality and the prospect of bad press, Trump will be eager to cut a deal without getting much in return for the sake of declaring victory. That’s why all eyes will be on the summit — scheduled for Feb. 27 and 28 in Hanoi, Vietnam, as of this printing — to see if the administration continues to demand an all-or-nothing approach or accepts a more phased implementation (which, as past efforts have shown, is no guarantee of success either).
But Jackson, author of the 2018 book “On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War,” believes the sequel to the Singapore summit will be another substantive letdown. He argues that Trump is more interested in showmanship than the arduous work of building sustainable denuclearization accords.
As a result, he warns that the situation on the Korean Peninsula remains as dangerous as ever, if not more so — because both men have “personalized” the nuclear crisis without doing any actual legwork to resolve it, leaving the world vulnerable to the whims of two capricious leaders.
And between the two leaders, Jackson says Kim clearly has the upper hand. In fact, he claims the young dictator has already played Trump “because he knows Trump is playable,” as Jackson told Axios’s Mike Allen last December.
A former Pentagon strategist, Jackson says Kim is biding his time for the next president because he sees Trump as too erratic to cut a deal with anyway. In the meantime, a summit, filled with empty rhetoric, is perfectly suited to Kim’s aims — which is to “run out the clock” on the administration while elevating the dictator’s international standing.
In addition to waiting Trump out, Jackson says Kim’s strategy includes showering the president with effusive praise; rendering his team of negotiators irrelevant; and continuing his global charm offensive, all while keeping his all-important nuclear arsenal intact with an eye toward eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
Jackson is a frequent commentator on Asian security and defense matters. From 2009 to 2014, he held positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as a strategist and policy adviser focused on the Asia-Pacific, in addition to serving as senior country director for Korea. He is currently a global fellow with the D.C.-based Wilson Center and a senior lecturer of international relations at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.
Contrary to popular opinion, Jackson says it wasn’t Trump’s maximum pressure campaign that brought Kim to the bargaining table. Rather, previous sanctions instituted by President Obama forced the regime to ramp up its nuclear weapons program. With that program now firmly in place and the threat of preventative war off the table, Kim is entering negotiations from a position of strength and can switch gears to focus on the country’s economy. This is in line with Kim’s so-called “byungjin” strategy to pursue nuclear weapons capability while also developing the economy.
In fact, while many Korea watchers believe the isolated dictator might be desperate to make a deal, Jackson says not so fast. He believes it is Kim — not Trump; not South Korea’s Moon Jae-in; and not even China’s Xi Jinping — dictating the international moves at play. The Asia specialist thinks the oft-cited belief that Kim is motivated by survival is more fiction. Jackson argues that the driving force for Kim is, in fact, the unification of the Koreas, a long-held goal of the ruling family dynasty.
On that note, Jackson predicts that the only movement in the near future will be the two Koreas growing closer together. He doesn’t believe Kim will budge on the nuclear front, especially under the current administration, which is why the U.S. should accept the North’s nuclear status and focus instead on dialogue and arms control.
Jackson talked about this and other issues during a recent interview where he didn’t mince words about the two leaders at the heart of this high-stakes nuclear drama.
*This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Washington Diplomat: The chief intelligence and national security heads for the major U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, CIA and director of national intelligence, testified before Congress and contradicted President Trump’s assertions on North Korea. What is your take on the disconnect between the president and his handpicked intel and security chiefs?
Van Jackson: The intel chiefs said everything experts believe. President Trump is lying on North Korea.
TWD: What is President Trump’s motivation to lie? Granted he has played fast and loose with the truth throughout his presidency.
VJ: He lies for the sake of diplomacy. But what does that get us? Pursuing diplomacy means working toward the goal of nuclear arms control. But what it all means ultimately is North Korea — Kim Jong-un, specifically — is playing President Trump and isolating him from the rest of his administration.
TWD: How so?
VJ: Kim sends friendly letters to President Trump that flatter him — thereby, moving President Trump to take steps outside of his national security team, steps that are advantageous to the Kim regime because Trump does not escalate the pressure on Kim denuclearizing or offer hard evidence of ongoing steps toward denuclearization.
TWD: Is Kim’s plan working?
VJ: Yes, the plan is working. The Kim regime used an enormous amount of time planning the [Singapore] summit. This is an effort to keep away from the hard work of doing actual diplomacy — diplomacy that might have led to actual substantive deliverables that Kim would not be willing to undertake.
TWD: If what you say is true, that the Trump administration is being played, isn’t that a reflection of the president’s national security team, specifically Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton?
VJ: [North Korea] state media describes Bolton and Pompeo as “ieokpoong,” or “headwind,” meaning everyone is an obstacle to making trouble except Trump.
TWD: Surely Stephen Biegun, President Trump’s chief negotiator for the talks, is making inroads. He is a longtime Washington operative having worked for the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and understands the geopolitical landscape.
VJ: Steve Biegun is a corporate executive. He’s not experienced in dealing with North Korea. He hasn’t had any major breakthroughs with actual concessions from North Korea.
TWD: It appears the president believes that he alone can bring about success.
VJ: Trump has this theory of personal diplomacy or as I like to call it, the “hubris of ignorance,” where he repeatedly puts himself at the center of the issue because only he can fix the problem. None of his personal efforts have paid off. Not with Russia, not with Iran and not for the United States. This president is only interested in headlines.
TWD: What about North Korea? What is its endgame?
VJ: Much has changed for North Korea as they are seeking sanctions relief. Normalized relations helps with that effort. Meetings with regional leaders including [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe, Moon and Jinping certainly go a long way. None of these efforts — normalization, sanctions relief — require meetings with Donald Trump, but it helps.
TWD: But this charm offensive by Kim isn’t possible without the overtures from Moon. The South Korean president has staked his presidency on normalized relations with North Korea. Is Moon the catalyst in all of this?
VJ: Yes, he has been critical to everything since 2018. The Olympics, pivoting out of a stance of defiance. Kim needed a friendly face in Moon and that shift happened Nov. 28, 2017 [when North Korea successfully fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental U.S.].
TWD: So Moon opened the door and now it is Kim pulling the strings?
VJ: Yes, the nukes got him to the dance. They [nuclear weapons] got him this far. Denuclearization is a fantasy. If Kim did decide to denuclearize, he wouldn’t be motivated by President Trump as he sees the president as a liar and Trump will be leaving office soon. Kim plays the long game to see what deal he can get from president to president. Kim is attempting to run out the clock on the Trump presidency. North Korea, in the end, will screw us over. Trump diplomacy is fake, but it gives us a view into how far North Korea is willing to go.
TWD: You paint a very grim picture for U.S. security interests. Given this gloom and doom outlook, is it worth pursuing diplomatic engagement with North Korea?
VJ: All aspects of diplomacy are worthwhile. However, the technical diplomacy isn’t happening. We haven’t worked out any of the backroom issues from which the pageantry is derived. Where this ends up is in 2020 a new president inherits a new environment with a nuclear North Korea — so a worse situation than when Trump came into office. Long-term national security is worse off due to a lack of technical cost and buy-in. The major cost for this administration was buying into the show of summits without the legwork.
TWD: For all the Trump administration has gotten wrong — in your estimation — it still hasn’t lifted sanctions.
VJ: Steve Biegun stated at a conference in Northern California: No sanctions relief before denuclearization. This means 100 percent of sanctions stay in place until complete denuclearization. However, the Trump administration has slid from that and is willing to entertain some sanctions relief in exchange for some denuclearization. [Biegun suggested that while the U.S. would not offer sanctions relief, it could provide other forms of assistance such as humanitarian aid.]
Kim believes North Korea has made enough concessions and it is therefore time for the U.S. to make concessions in the form of some sanctions relief. Other concessions the U.S. can make include: one, a declaration to end the Korean War, which I believe President Trump will do before he leaves office, and two, break the nuclear deterrence [umbrella] with South Korea.
TWD: How does South Korea respond to a possible nixing of the nuclear deterrence, whereby the U.S. guarantees to defend its non-nuclear ally.
VJ: Response would be mixed. The government is largely controlled by the progressive bloc and right now, they would support all of these concessions. The reason is this gets the South closer to unification with the North, which is what they want. Moreover, progressives are not wedded to the U.S. alliance. Many of Moon’s advisors are not supportive of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. In fact, many of them speak openly against the alliance with the U.S.
TWD: If President Trump rhetorically ends the Korean War, what’s the point of maintaining the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea?
VJ: Progressives trust Kim Jong-un will be willing to change and give up nukes if treated with respect. In addition, progressives believe unification appeals to Kim.
TWD: Where does China fit into all of this?
VJ: China and North Korea hate each other but China is willing to maintain an alliance out of convenience. China does not want a nuclear-armed enemy on its border, nor do they want refugees fleeing to China. China prefers a friend on its border to an enemy. Kim refused to meet with Xi Jinping for several years. It wasn’t until Kim was ready to implement his charm offensive that he took a meeting with China’s leader.
About the Author
Eric Ham is a national security/political analyst on BBC, SkyNews and SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel and the creator of “The PJs! a.k.a. The Political Junkies” digital political show.