Ambiguity Wins

Some diplomatic agreements work and some don’t. Those that work seem to be based on delicate ambiguity. The United States has had an odd One-China Policy in place since 1972 – “The United States acknowledges that Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.” China joined the United Nations and Taiwan did not – the United States decides it was fine with that – but the United States treats Taiwan as a real country anyway. The United States trades with Taiwan – the economies are interlocked – and sends aid and arms, but not quite enough arms to upset the Chinese too often – and all three parties seem to have agreed that it’s best not to talk about this at all. One of Donald Trump’s first calls as president was to the president of Taiwan – he doesn’t do ambiguity – and the Chinese were angry. The Taiwanese were pleased but really worried – they’re not ready for a war with mainland China to break “free” of this arrangement. Someone talked to Trump. He didn’t do that again.

Diplomatic agreements with no ambiguity are the problem. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles had no ambiguity – the Germans would pay massive reparations and not be allowed to have a real military ever again. The Germans were publicly humiliated, rightly. There was no ambiguity at all – and the German economy collapsed – and a young Adolph Hitler told the German people that Germany would never be humiliated again – and the rest is history. Oops. That explains the Marshall Plan – after Hitler was history the United States spent billions rebuilding Europe, including Germany, because the Germans weren’t bad people, really. Sure, they had done bad things – the most awful of things – but it’s complicated. Ambiguity helps, and we rebuilt Japan too. They had done the most awful of things too, but they could keep their emperor and we’d teach them baseball. No one was humiliated, and both nations are economic powerhouses now, key trading partners, and our allies. The new unified communist Vietnam is a trading partner with the United States now too, and sides with us now and then in international disputes. All is not forgiven, maybe, but it’s complicated. Cuba is the exception here. Obama tried the Vietnam-model there – open up trade and start talking about the awful stuff, to eventually work things out – but Donald Trump is putting an end to that. He doesn’t do ambiguity.

North Korea will be a challenge for Donald Trump. The Korean War never ended. The 1953 armistice was a cease-fire agreement that assured ambiguity. There was no “winner” at all. Nothing was settled except a dividing line. North Korea is armed to the teeth, with nukes now. South Korea is armed too, with the United States’ awesome military might backing them up. Both sides are in a position of power. Neither side is in a position of power. The leader who can best manage this deadly ambiguity will win.

That might not be Donald Trump. Kevin Drum notes this:

The upcoming summit meeting with North Korea has been orchestrated entirely by Kim Jong-un. It started with his outreach at the Olympics. Then he proposed the meeting with Trump. He halted missile testing. He met with South Korea and it was all smiles. He’s implied that he’s in favor of complete denuclearization. He released three American hostages. And he’s now planning a public spectacle of destroying North Korea’s nuclear testing site.

What is he up to?

One possibility is that he’s genuinely willing to give up his nukes. All his actions make sense if that’s the case. But no one thinks that’s the case. So what’s going on? Does he really believe that he can squeeze serious concessions out of Trump without verifiably giving up his nukes? Even I don’t think Trump is that dimwitted. So what’s on his mind? Does anyone have a clue?

No one has a clue. Kim Jong-un is a master at ambiguity, and now there’s this:

North Korea is rapidly moving the goal posts for next month’s summit between leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump, saying the United States must stop insisting it “unilaterally” abandon its nuclear program and stop talking about a Libya-style solution to the standoff.

The latest warning, delivered by former North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan on Wednesday, fits Pyongyang’s well-established pattern of raising the stakes in negotiations by threatening to walk out if it doesn’t get its way.

The idea seems to be to catch Trump flatfooted. Trump wants this summit, to prove he can do what no president, and certainly not Obama, has been able to do since 1953 – resolve all the ambiguities over there and fix everything once and for all, because he’s wonderful, but now he looks like a fool:

This comes just hours after the North Korean regime cast doubt on the planned summit by protesting joint air force drills taking place in South Korea, saying they were ruining the diplomatic mood.

If the Trump administration approaches the summit “with sincerity” for improved relations, “it will receive a deserved response from us,” Kim Gye Gwan, now vice foreign minister, said in a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday.

“However, if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue…”

Trump didn’t expect this, but he should have:

“The U.S. and South Korea hold an exercise, which contains some strategic strike elements to it. U.S. officials can’t seem to get on the same page regarding denuclearization and what is required of North Korea,” said Ken Gause, a North Korea leadership expert at CNA, a Virginia-based consulting firm. “At some point, North Korea was going to cry foul.”

That’s what they did, because Trump wants to negotiate, and he doesn’t want to negotiate:

Trump and his top aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, have repeatedly said that the United States wants the “complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization of North Korea” – a high standard that Pyongyang has previously balked at.

Bolton, known for his sharply hawkish views, has said that North Korea must commit to disarmament similar to “Libya 2004.” He was undersecretary of state for arms control in 2004, when Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi agreed to give up its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

But this is not a tempting model for North Korea. Seven years after surrendering his nuclear program, Gaddafi was overthrown and then brutally killed by opponents of his regime.

North Korea lashed out at Bolton, whom the regime derided as “human scum” while he worked in the George W. Bush administration, and at the suggestions that North Korea should be dealt with in the same way that the Bush administration dealt with Libya and Iraq.

And someone remembers that 1919 Treaty of Versailles:

“This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister moves to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq, which had been collapsed due to the yielding of their countries to big powers,” Kim Gye Gwan said.

Any talk of “our dignified state” should remind everyone of what happened after 1919 in Germany. Remove ambiguity and bad things happen:

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Robert Manning III, said Tuesday that the exercises are part of the U.S.-South Korean alliance’s “routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness.”

Manning said the purpose of the exercises is to enhance the alliance’s ability to defend South Korea. “While we will not discuss specifics, the defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed,” he said.

North Korea, as it has in the past, disagreed. “This exercise targeting us, which is being carried out across South Korea, is a flagrant challenge to the Panmunjom Declaration and an intentional military provocation running counter to the positive political development on the Korean Peninsula,” [the North Korean News Agency] KCNA said.

And to clarify:

By mentioning the Panmunjom Declaration, North Korea was referring to the agreement signed last month by Kim and Moon following their historic summit. They agreed to work to turn the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953 into a peace treaty that would officially bring the war to a close, and also to pursue the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula…

At the same time as threatening to scuttle the summit with Trump, North Korea canceled talks with South Korean officials that had been scheduled for Wednesday, less than 24 hours after agreeing to them.

This is a mess, but as Aaron Blake reported, our new secretary of state tried to cut North Korea some slack:

President Trump has assured us he’ll drive a hard bargain with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and he set the goal posts firmly at Kim’s getting rid of his nuclear weapons. Asked last month what he meant when he said “denuclearization,” Trump said: “It means they get rid of their nukes – very simple.”

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounded a somewhat different tune Sunday.

The newly installed top U.S. diplomat at times seemed to echo Trump’s hard line. He reiterated on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump’s goal was “the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.” Pompeo confirmed when asked by “Face the Nation” that the goal was “total, full, complete” denuclearization. Asked whether that meant “dismantling,” “getting rid of the centrifuges, stopping all enrichment, getting inspectors on the ground,” Pompeo confirmed all of it.

But at different points, he also appeared to suggest that a deal might come up shy of making North Korea get rid of all of its current nukes.

Pompeo did try to offer North Korea at least a bit of comforting ambiguity:

He said on both shows that the objective was to prevent North Korea from having the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. And he explicitly called for its getting rid of missiles, without saying the same about existing warheads.

Blake finds this odd:

It seems possible Pompeo is using the talking point about Kim striking the United States simply because of Trump’s “America First” approach. Perhaps it’s just his way of reinforcing the stakes of this potential deal specifically for Americans.

But a closer parse suggests that there may be more focus on Kim’s halting the existing nuclear program and getting rid of his Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program – which would be the delivery system for striking the United States. Pompeo explicitly talks about needing North Korea to “get rid of your chemical weapons program and missiles that threaten the world,” but he doesn’t say the same thing about getting rid of nukes.

From there, the question is what precisely is meant by “dismantle” and “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”

That is a mystery – Mike Pompeo isn’t John Bolton at all – and Josh Marshall adds this:

From the outset, there was little reason to think that North Korea would agree to surrender its nuclear weapons and the infrastructure and labs required to build them. If we set aside the never-very-plausible idea that the Kims are madmen intent on prepping some secular apocalyptic nuclear confrontation with the U.S., a more prosaic, rational strategy becomes clear: build a credible nuclear deterrent, thus making military-backed regime change unthinkable. Then reach an accommodation with the U.S. from a position of strength and fundamental equality. Such an agreement might involve restrictions on nuclear weapons development, limits on numbers of warheads. But fundamentally it would mean accepting North Korea as a nuclear power.

Now the Trump administration appears to be trying to define “denuclearization” in such a way as to bring it into line with that kind of agreement.

Marshall is not impressed:

Put it all together and you see a ‘deal’ in which North Korea gives up missiles that can reach the U.S., gets rid of chemical and biological weapons, and perhaps limits some ability to manufacture new nuclear weapons. In each case, North Korea gets an end of sanctions, partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and an undetermined amount of economic aid. Note that this is pretty close to the deal Republicans and finally President Bush trashed twenty years ago, only with the addition that North Korea has nuclear weapons and U.S. troops leave the region.

There is some irony there, and this logic:

What is notable is that such a deal means at least partially decoupling the U.S. from its regional allies in South Korea and Japan. One fact that aligns U.S. interests with South Korea’s is that we station over 20,000 U.S. military personnel and a substantial number of their dependents in the part of the country that would be the scene of intense fighting in a conflict with North Korea. Reduce the U.S. deployment and that alignment of interests or vulnerability diminishes. Also, note that the focus on ICBMs would mean that the U.S. safeguards its own population at the cost of accepting a North Korea nuclear capacity which covers all of South Korea and Japan.

That does amount to writing off South Korea and Japan, and Marshall also sees this:

None of this amounts to denuclearization. And much it is a ‘deal’ the U.S. likely could have gotten many times over recent years or decades… Believing we can ‘denuclearize’ North Korea is probably not realistic in any case. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or that we should open up the national checkbook as President Trump appears ready to do.

But our options are not good – fundamentally because North Korea is already a nuclear power, even though we’ve refused to give that fact our blessing. But just because President Trump appears ready to accede to what the North Koreans have always wanted doesn’t mean we should harbor unrealistic ideas about what is possible.

In 1919, many thought that keeping Germany from making war ever again was quite possible. Unrealistic ideas about what is possible got many people killed. Henry Kissinger once described successful diplomacy as “purposeful ambiguity” and this isn’t it.

Kim is testing Trump. Kim is trying to find out just how much Trump is willing to do to prevent the collapse of the summit. Trump has offered bluster and absolute certainty. John Bolton amplified that, turning that bluster up to full volume. Mike Pompeo turned the volume down and confused everyone – but Trump is still certain. He has vowed that he will accept nothing but a North Korea without nuclear weapons – maybe.

Kim is also teasing Trump. Trump is certain. Kim is the master of ambiguity. Ambiguity wins every time. History proves that.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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