Evaluating the Trump – Kim Jong Un Show

I guess like most of the viewing audience I should at least concede that I was watching a significant event in Singapore when I saw President Trump basking in his moment of glory. Yet as he gave his self -congratulatory account of what had just transpired, it started to dawn on me that that the President’s by now famous naivety appeared to have blinded him to some rather serious problems. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely the President’s fault. Disarmament is not a significant part of his background.

There was also a curious mismatch between Mr Trump’s effusive praise of Kim Jong Un and the widespread international understanding of the North Korean President’s brutal treatment of his own people in the so called death camps not to mention the highly publicised murder of two close relatives.  The praise of President Kim must have jarred with some of the International audience when they remembered that a few days ago Mr Trump was heaping scorn on some of the G7 participants who were supposed to be US allies.

At best we might excuse some of Mr Trump’s knowledge gaps and diplomatic clumsiness by his reluctance to seek experienced advice.      His famous disinclination to read serious books on history and international affairs might help explain the very obvious absence of basic historical background knowledge of the previous antecedents to the current Korean impasse on the part of President Trump. Unfortunately having invited the world’s Press to watch and presumably analyse at leisure all the faults were now all on show for the world to see. Perhaps even more worryingly, Mr Trump revealed an embarrassing lack of understanding of how denuclearisation works and clearly had failed to have prior consultation with South Korea, China and even his own military advisers about the balance of military power in the area.

Although my own knowledge of nuclear weapons is now well out of date since I was commissioned in 1994 by the Auckland Branch of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms and the Peace and Disarmament Trust to write a primer on Verification, I would have thought that sending a President into such a significant meeting without some basics was unwise to say the least.

For example Mr Trump had either not been told or alternately pretended ignorance about the course of the North Korean weapons testing. It does not take a very deep study of the subject to know that because full scale nuclear tests typically consume very hard won nuclear fuel eg Plutonium, the tests are typically only performed as nuclear fission or fusion reactions when new types of weapons are being tested.

But here is the point. Once the testing site programme is concluded, typically no further weapons are wasted. Thus for example, the Israelis only performed a handful of tests before closing their testing site. Having apparently concluded their testing to the point where they had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, the North Koreans did entirely as expected and announced they were shutting down their testing facilities. Mr Trump announced it was due to him and his diplomacy!!!

If President Trump had either invited (or perhaps listened) to his weapons advisors he would have known that like the US, the North Koreans were now at the stage where most of their testing would continue as computer simulations.

Although the President was quite correct in saying that to have the two Presidents together was a significant step forward, the perception that it would lead to peace in the area – or even that it was a step further towards denuclearisation is simply a pure guess. At best we should concede we should hope that the Singapore meeting has led to a lessening of the tensions between North and South Korea and at least has opened the possibility for some sort of future nuclear disarmament in the Peninsula.

Those who have kept up with the faltering steps towards peace between the two Koreas will know that this time the real circuit breaker was the President of South Korea who, last February, had offered places in the Winter Olympics Korean team to a North Korean group of competitors and had set up a preliminary Peace Conference in April between the North and South Korean delegations. As might have been expected this led to some ambiguously hopeful statements about the oft-promised denuclearisation.

The 25 April outcome had used an identical disappointing vague statement to that now just used in the Trump/ Kim Jong Un Singapore meeting, that North Korea would work towards complete denuclearisation but with absolutely no indication how this would be achieved. We should remember the 25 April statement had been roundly condemned by disarmament experts because firstly, it was not calling for permanent and verifiable denuclearisation, nor was it saying who would be verifying the progress.

Since the Americans should have known about the earlier storm of protest, given that they had had some weeks since April to put together a more realistic proposal, the fact that they were no further ahead after the meeting at Singapore suggests either Mr Trump was out manoeuvred by President Kim or worse, that the North Koreans were not serious in their offer.

Mr Trump is of course being economic with the truth when he claims this is the best progress made in the recent past. For example anyone with an elementary reading of recent history should have known that prior to 1993 North Korea had been committed (at least on paper) to the UN arranged declaration in the Non Proliferation Treaty.

Just for the record, check out the following brief review of some of the outcomes of past treaty discussions between North Korea and the US led delegations.

1993: The US intelligence had claimed that North Korea had enough plutonium to produce one or two nuclear warheads. North Korea then gave notice of its intent to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty despite being an earlier signatory, After discussions with the United States at the United Nations they agreed to suspend this decision.

1994: Jimmy Carter became the first former U.S. president to visit North Korea, where he helped lay the ground for diplomatic talks to progress the temporary impasse. Following Carter’s visit, the Clinton administration and North Korea signed an “Agreed Framework” to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program. Pyongyang agreed to freeze construction of nuclear reactors and production of plutonium in exchange for aid, fuel shipments, and other economic benefits.

2000: A senior North Korean military leader Jo Myong Rok, visited Washington for a meeting with President Bill Clinton following positive signs in Pyongyang’s talks with South Korea. This was followed by a visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang. Her meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was intended to expand the Agreed Framework and prepare for a potential visit by President Bill Clinton. Unfortunately these talks were unsuccessful.

2002: The Agreed Framework set up under Clinton finally broke down. President George W. Bush, who had taken a harder-line stance on Pyongyang than his predecessor, had accused North Korea of cheating by secretly pursuing a uranium enrichment program. North Korea responded by accusing the United States of backing out of its end of the deal.

2003: Following the collapse of the Agreed Framework and North Korea’s withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, China hosted the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Russia for a succession of talks with North Korea which became known as the six-party talks. At these talks, Pyongyang insisted it would not be giving up its nuclear weapons program.

2006: North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, re-sparking the simmering diplomatic crisis.

2009: The six-party talks were abandoned following a North Korean refusal to grant international inspectors permission to visit sites in North Korea. Despite the clear lack of progress, former President Bill Clinton visited North Korea successfully negotiated the release of two imprisoned American journalists.

2011: Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea since 1994, died amid President Barack Obama’s administration’s efforts to revive peace talks. His son, Kim Jong Un, took power.

2012: President Obama tried to push Pyongyang to the negotiating table by ratcheting up sanctions. Possibly in an effort to convey strength both to his own people and to the international community Kim Jong Un refused to authorise a final deal that would have halted North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and which should have allowed in international inspectors in exchange for U.S. aid. Meanwhile, North Korea continued to show strong signs of development in its nuclear weapons program.  We can only suspect that President Kim realized that further into the nuclear programme, North Korea would be seen as having a stronger negotiating position.

2016 – 2017: Newly elected President Donald Trump made a great show of threats against North Korea, threatening to rain down “fire and fury” if it continued to escalate tensions with the United States. North Korea responded with the test-firing of a series of ballistic missiles, and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.

2018 In February North Korea had sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics – followed by an unexpected conference April between the two Presidents of North and South Korea. The President of South Korea subsequently persuaded President Trump back to the negotiating table.

Had President Trump managed to make a brief factual comment to the public at the conclusion of his meeting with President Kim he might have avoided what will probably turn out to be an embarrassing series of easily checked errors in his post conference meeting with the world’s press.

One simple example came when he talked of the North Koreans testing their biggest bomb.   Mr Trump explained the blast produced an 8.8 Richter scale earthquake and went on to say that he had never even heard of an earthquake that reached 8 on the scale.    In the first place the earthquake signal happened to be 6.3 on the scale and in the second place virtually every 12 grade high school student should have heard of measured earthquakes which were bigger than 8 on the scale.   It is hard to believe that even poorly qualified advisers would have deliberately misled Mr Trump with garbled information of this level.

Please don’t hear me saying that progress has not been significant in the Trump/ Kim Jong Un meeting.   After all the two were exchanging wild threats up to a few months ago.   What still needs explanation is why Mr Trump is so insistent that the brief meeting has been so positive when there are so many unknowns.

At the very least the following now requires urgent clarification.
1. What is China’s reaction to the reorganized politics of a North Korea on their doorstep. Eg would they countenance a US Presence on their border?
2. How are other nearby nations affected by the consequent shift in balance of power.
3. Does reducing the threats to North Korea’s security make South Korea more vulnerable?
4. What proposals are going to be implemented to ensure that North Korea does not continue its human rights violations?
5. Is the US similarly prepared to downgrade its military capability in the area?
6. Since verification is generally accepted to be the action of investigating compliance with Treaty obligations by means of evidence gathered by a variety of techniques and institutional means, given that President Trump is downgrading the US military presence in the area (somewhat to the surprise we should add of the President of South Korea) it would be interesting to see how the evidence for verification is to be gathered and what would be required to verify the still unwritten treaty.
7. If it is necessary to reduce the North Korean nuclear capacity what about other Nuclear powers in equally unstable areas? E.g. Israel, Pakistan etc. etc. (but don’t mention the US!!!!!!)

For those who enjoy irony, there must be a certain urge to smile just a little when we remember that much further down the track we will be facing convoluted safeguards with North Korea which may well have to resemble the verification complexities of the sort imposed by that other well known denuclearisation treaty with a country called Iran, that treaty President Trump so …um…admired?      However at least one powerful nation will be breathing a small sigh of relief in that the US had been using Korea in part as an excuse to need to have a display of military power to keep China from flexing too much muscle in the region.    President Trump’s promise to bring the military home will free China to extend its area of control.   I refuse to believe that President Trump was unaware of this consequence and am confident that any day now we can expect a tweet storm to explain this latest shift in US policy.

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