The Smallness of Trump’s North Korea Diplomacy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As eyes turn to President Donald Trump's big summit in Singapore with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, the focus has been on the prospect of a decent deal to rid the young tyrant of his nuclear weapons. That won't happen Tuesday. Even the president is lowering expectations, promising he will be able to surmise Kim's seriousness within the first minute of their meeting.

There is though a chance for something smaller — yet significant — to emerge from the summit than a nuclear bargain. Over the weekend, Axios reported that Trump is open to establishing formal relations and even building an embassy at Pyongyang.

The Axios dispatch presents the establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea as an American concession in exchange for commitments on the nuclear file, and it's easy to see why. Kim presides over the most isolated state on the planet. He has sought to end that international isolation and the U.N. sanctions imposed last year for his brazen nuclear and missile tests. A U.S. mission would send a powerful message that his country is open for business.

That said, the U.S. has historically viewed a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang not as a concession, but a benefit in and of itself.

Two decades ago, the establishment of a U.S. interest section — basically, an unofficial embassy — was a key part of a proposal presented to Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, by William Perry, the defense secretary. Perry was the co-author of a study for the Bill Clinton administration that had concluded an attack on North Korea's known nuclear sites would risk the obliteration of Seoul, because of the conventional artillery Kim's military had amassed on the demilitarized zone.

His mission to Pyongyang in 1999 was part of a diplomatic effort to build upon an interim deal reached in 1994 to pause and roll back the Hermit Kingdom's nuclear program.

A year after Perry's visit to North Korea, the Clinton administration was preparing to send a small team of diplomats to Pyongyang following Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit there in October 2000. The plan was scrapped, though, after Albright was unable to get a deal on North Korean missiles and the regime rejected the offer for a U.S. diplomatic presence.

So why have American diplomats and national security officials viewed the establishment of diplomatic relations as a desirable outcome?

In his new memoir, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provides an interesting answer. He writes that the North Korean regime "survives because it fosters isolation," and yet many of its citizens are curious about America. Clapper adds: "Currently, we have limited means to satisfy their citizens' hunger for information, something very difficult to do in the absence of a physical presence in the country."

What's more, Clapper argues that establishing such a mission should not be presented as "reward for bad behavior, but rather as an opportunity for direct physical access, which would enhance our insight and understanding and, perhaps even more importantly, foster interaction with the people of the DPRK and enable the flow of information from the rest of the world."

In this respect, an embassy or U.S. interest section in North Korea is something like a poison pill. At first it may confer some legitimacy on an outlaw regime, but over time it would provide U.S. spy agencies with new insights into a notoriously hard intelligence target and also give North Koreans direct access to America, a country demonized by the dictatorship.

Not everyone agrees. Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told me it's "wishful thinking" to expect U.S. personnel stationed in Pyongyang to learn new insights into a totalitarian regime that has perfected the surveillance and subterfuge common in police states.

As for Clapper's hope that a U.S. mission could help break the isolation the regime imposes on its people, Scarlatoiu is skeptical. He noted that regime elites live in Pyongyang, whereas the people who most suffer from the regime live outside of the capital. "I don't think European diplomats in Pyongyang have a chance to look at the real North Korea because they are under heavy surveillance and their movements are so restricted," he said. "Why would we expect something different for American diplomats?"

Michael Auslin, a fellow in contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, is also doubtful that a U.S. diplomatic presence in North Korea would make a difference. He said that U.S. embassies in China and the Soviet Union before its collapse offer no evidence that an embassy in and of itself will help a closed society open up. What's more, there is a danger now following the Trump-Kim summit that North Korea is gaining legitimacy before it has made serious commitments to disarm. The worse-case scenario is that the U.S. ends up backing into recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power and then backs out of its nuclear commitments.

That is a real danger. But it's possible that a diplomatic opening to North Korea could be the beginning of a process that undermines the political security of the Kim regime. Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at American Enterprise Institute and a specialist in North Korea's economy, told me he was open to the idea if it meant that a U.S. mission in Pyongyang gave American intelligence agencies a beachhead to do things they could not do before.

"I would keep an open mind about it," Eberstadt told me. "I would love if this were to be what the North Korean regime has called ideological and cultural poisoning. I am not sufficiently confident we are up to that task, though."

Eberstadt gets to the real problem with Trump establishing an embassy in Pyongyang. Without a policy that empowers the Korean victims of the Kim family, there is no chance a U.S. mission will help open the country. A dozen years ago, George W. Bush's second secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, called this approach "transformational diplomacy." The objective, she said, was "to use America's diplomatic power to help foreign citizens better their own lives and to build their own nations and to transform their own futures."

If Trump pursued this kind of broader foreign policy, then a diplomatic opening to North Korea could pay benefits down the road. But the president has no time for such lofty visions. He has pursued instead a transactional diplomacy, which fails to distinguish between tyrants and presidents. We saw this on the eve of the Singapore summit in Quebec, where he used the opportunity of a meeting of the G-7 to ask why Russia was kicked out of this elite international club.

Now Trump will bring his transactional diplomacy to a meeting with a man who allegedly had his half-brother poisoned with an outlawed nerve agent, who presides over prison camps reminiscent of Stalin's gulags. Trump wants this man to give up an apocalyptic arsenal in exchange for the promise of normal relations with a great power the tyrant's family has demonized for nearly seven decades.

The president and his supporters want us to call all of this statesmanship. But given the regime's history and nature, it's more accurate to call this summitry what it is: a shakedown.

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