The Best – and Worst – That Can Happen in Singapore

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Moscow in 1988 to discuss nuclear reductions, Reagan compared it to appearing in an epic cinematic production by Cecil B. DeMille. By this he meant more than, as he put it, "being dropped into a great historical moment." He was also noting that much, if not most, of the interaction between the two leaders had been pre-scripted as tightly as a Hollywood blockbuster.

This included months of direct meetings between the leaders' top aides; negotiations over a list of 20 proposed prospective events prepared by Nancy Reagan's staff; even the creation a "focus group" of voters in Philadelphia on which to test Reagan's lines. The only surprise was when Gorbachev quoted a Russian proverb that was supposed to be part of Reagan's welcoming speech. Reagan improvised by repeating the line, but crediting Gorbachev on his "wonderful phrase": "It is better to see once than hear a hundred times."


In contrast, next week's Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un has been preceded by a paucity of seeing, hearing or communication of any kind. Singapore was chosen less than a month ago. The venue, an island resort, was announced only days ago. And, with less than five days to go as of this writing, there is no word on when Trump will even arrive.

And, if the logistics remain a question mark, the substance of the meeting is a complete mystery. Will they discuss little more than agreeing to more discussions? Will Kim make a dramatic concession on his nuclear arsenal? Will Trump respond with a drawdown of U.S. troops on the peninsula? Will they finally end the Korean War?

To answer some of these questions, I talked to someone who has dealt with the North Koreans before: Victor Cha. Now a professor at Georgetown and chair of the Korea program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Cha was from 2004 to 2007 director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

But perhaps what he is best known for is a job he doesn't have: U.S. ambassador to South Korea. After being all but named to the position by the Trump administration, he created a minor firestorm by publicly criticizing the White House for considering a limited military strike to give North Korea a "bloody nose." The more hawkish element of Republican foreign-policy circles drew out the long knives and, well, Cha is enjoying the academic/think tank life.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:


Tobin Harshaw: So, although there's never been a U.S.-North Korea summit at this level, Washington has made several deals with the North Koreans in the past, and they have always flouted them. What would you need to see from this Kim, beyond a declaration, to show he is more serious than his father?

Victor Cha: First, it would take a clear statement of intent to adhere to the process. Then it would mean committing to allowing the IAEA to seal the buildings involved in the nuclear program and then to take everything out of them. This would be a real sign that things are different.

TH: We know the U.S. is not going to get everything it wants. So what is the very minimum it should accept in any deal?

VC: I think the bare minimum would be statements by the North Korean leader committing to denuclearization and negotiating a process, conducted at a high level such as Secretary of State Pompeo and his equivalent, to negotiate terms of full denuclearization. That is the bare minimum of what could be called success.

If there are just a bunch of words, we know it's just made for TV and not a real process. That wouldn't make us more secure -- if anything it would make us less secure.

TH: Kim's not going to give up his arsenal overnight. If there is a deal, it will be over a timeline. What needs to come first, and how would you structure the other elements over time?

VC: Kim would have to give a full accounting of their sites, and the IAEA would have to go in and confirm and seal them. You cannot stop fissile material, you have to seal it up. Next would come the disabling of the operating systems, so that if the North broke the seals they could not easily restore the program. Eventually would come preparations for dismantling and removal.

Equally important would be creating a dispute-resolution mechanism. There needs to be a process of adjudication between the two sides, probably involving third parties. It becomes very complex very quickly.

TH: I had a conversation some months ago with former National Security Council staffer Philip Bobbitt, who had a somewhat radical plan: the U.S. should negotiate not with the North but with China. China would agree to protect North Korea under its nuclear umbrella, thus giving Kim no need for a bomb. Does that strike you as realistic?

VC:  I would say that China wouldn't do that. It presumes that China is like us and willing to give security guarantees to other countries. China doesn't do that. They did during Cold War with North Korea but that was over concerns about the Soviets, not the U.S.  

China would be happy to help provide capital for infrastructure, to take out minerals from North Korea, etc. But when you give security guarantees you can get trapped. And the last country you want to be trapped with is North Korea.

TH: In any case, China has a large stake in this summit working out. How will any deal help them?  What can the U.S. do to minimize the benefits to a rival?

VC: That's very hard to do. Because if this goes well, it will open opportunities for China, things like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank becoming more involved in North Korea, and this means China exercises more influence over the peninsula.  

And if Singapore goes badly, the U.S. will need China even more because you cannot do maximum pressure sanctions without them. They win either way.

The only worry for Beijing is if Trump went very far and asked for a peace treaty ending the Korean War. China would not be happy -- it's too far for them to go. But it's also too far for us to go. After a treaty, our Congress and South Korea would ask if we still needed troops in Korea. Every U.S. ally would start looking over their shoulder. Of course, Trump doesn't really care about that.

TH: We agree that's a farfetched scenario. But what if the U.S. pulled out its troops: how would South Korea and Japan react?  


VC: Japan would be the most concerned. Because its forward line of defense is the Korean Peninsula, and the U.S. has always looked at the defense of the two nations as an integrated whole. We could say we would double down on the troop presence in Japan, but there would still be a great deal of concern.

It would have an effect on markets, at least initially, because they respond not to what North Korea does but to what the U.S. does in response.

As for the south, it has a government that wants to do more of its own defense, but it does not want that to be part of the bargaining process. They would see that as a degrading of alliance.

TH: Would they build their own nuclear weapons?

VC: I believe that the norm against nuclear weapons in Japan is quite strong. But if you ask people there what scenario would make them consider it, 99 percent would say it is if the U.S. substantially downgraded its troop commitment in the region.

TH: Many people thought the Iran nuclear deal was flawed because it dealt only with the nuclear issue. Do you think any North Korea deal should go beyond the nuclear and missile program -- to deal with things like human rights abuses, weapons shipments, chemical weapons stocks and the like?

VC: I think it has to. The last two deals we did were just about nukes, and they didn't succeed. I worked on one of them.

Trump says he wants a more normal relationship with the North Koreans, and Kim says the same. This means necessarily that chemical and biological weapons need to be part of the solution.

Human rights is also integral. It is very hard to normalize relations with a country that treats its own people the way the north does. If the regime wants an assurance of security, the primary threat is not from external powers like Japan or the U.S. or Russia, but from its own people. And the U.S. cannot guarantee a government against the will of its own people.

TH: Finally, most people know you were the leading candidate to become ambassador to South Korea until you raised concerns over a potential limited military strike. What's it like now for you to watch things from the outside, and what might you have handled differently if you were on the scene? 

VC: First, let me say that all presidents have the right to choose their own people, and the right to change their minds. In my case, the president changed his mind.

I'm very happy to see the administration giving diplomacy a try, and taking us away from where we were in 2017, when there was no talk of diplomacy. Conflict on the peninsula would not solve the nuclear problem and would result in the vast loss of Korean and American lives.

I'm trying to be as supportive as I can as an American as we think about this problem. I'm willing to give advice if they ask for it. But I am very content to be back in my position as a professor at Georgetown and adviser at CSIS.

What would I do differently? The main thing is to stop the loud tweets. A long time ago I would have recommended going into a quiet phase, to focus on allowing the professionals to get some deliverables for the president when he shows up in Singapore.

I also would have advised not impulsively agreeing to this summit back in March, as I am  sure many people around the president did. But I seriously doubt Trump would have listened to me or anyone else.

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