The hard truths about North Korea that Trump or Biden will have to confront
While it’s likely there will be no diplomatic movement with North Korea before January, 2021, whomever wins the election will have to cast aside ideas that are continuously tried and have consistently failed.
Before President Obama departed the White House, he gave his successor, Donald Trump, some advice: pay attention to North Korea, because the reclusive nation will be your top national security priority.
As one might expect, President Trump has tackled the North Korea file in his own distinct way. In a blink of an eye, the conventional tactics Washington used against Pyongyang over the previous 30 years were replaced with threats of war and the kind of spur-of-the-moment summitry only a TV journalist could love.
Cutting through the mid-level bureaucrats and meeting directly with Kim Jong Un was quintessential Trump. The fact that much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, including some of his own security advisers, opposed Trump’s in-person meetings with Kim was evidence enough that Trump may have been on to something with this high-stakes diplomatic gamble.
Of course, the results of Trump’s unconventional approach to talks with the North have proven to be as disappointing as Obama’s policy of strategic patience. If it seemed like Washington and Pyongyang were at the beginning of a new, groundbreaking bilateral relationship after the June 2018 Singapore summit, the two countries today are like two divorcees who want nothing to do with each other.
After the excitement ended, the United States and North Korea reverted back to their own corners, each viewing the other as the uncooperative, malicious party solely responsible for the lack of diplomatic progress.
The last time negotiators from both sides were in the same room was nearly a year ago, when the North Korean delegation made a show out of the meeting in Stockholm by angrily walking out and strongly protesting Washington’s purported “failure to abandon its outdated viewpoint and attitude.” In the 10 months since, U.S.-North Korea diplomacy can best be compared to an immovable slug slowly dying on a hot sidewalk. The Trump administration is now relegated to whispering the same platitudes from administrations past about denuclearization.
North Korea is hardly top-of-mind for the American people. Nor should it be. With an ongoing national health crisis (nearly 185,000 Americans have died from COVID-19), the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, and spiraling health care costs, Americans quite frankly have far more important things to worry about.
Yet the North Korean issue isn’t going to magically disappear. The question now is whether Donald Trump or Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have a realistic plan to manage it.
Unfortunately, Trump and Biden don’t inspire much confidence. In August, Trump declared with his usual bombastic flare that he would “very quickly” arrive at a nuclear agreement with the North in his second term but failed to specify what metrics he would use to guide negotiations and what concessions he would be willing to put on the table.
Biden, meanwhile, wants to out-hawk Trump on North Korea by calling for the well-worn carrot-and-stick (mostly stick) framework that dominated the Obama years. Biden has not only said he would need preconditions to be met before negotiating with Kim personally, but he also says he would pressure China to enforce the various U.N. Security Council Resolutions which aim to drain the Kim dynasty’s finances and force it to cease its work on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But Biden didn’t explain just how he would get Beijing to help the United States, particularly at a time when relations between the two economic giants have been rapidly deteriorating.
Regardless of who has the privilege of representing the American people next year, the next U.S. administration won’t get anywhere with North Korea if it doesn’t cast aside many commonly-held beliefs on the issue, and it should start with acknowledging the U.S.’s own role in the North being metaphorically described as the “land of lousy options.”
First, we must dispel this notion that North Korea can’t be trusted to negotiate. There is a widespread assumption in the Beltway that the Kim dynasty is pre-programmed to be duplicitous and dishonest — and that even if the North Koreans are amenable to talking, it’s either a clever tactic to string the U.S. along or a way to divide the Security Council and break up the sanctions regime.
But this is more cliche than reality. While it’s certainly true that Pyongyang eventually violated the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated during the Clinton administration, it’s also true that the U.S. wasn’t exactly holding up its end of the bargain either. Implementation was spotty throughout and U.S. compliance, particularly on the shipment of heavy fuel oil to the North, was riddled with delays.
Nor is it accurate to argue that the Kim dynasty is implacably resistant to compromise. As former U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci wrote last year, Washington has “a tendency to approach engagement with the North Koreans with a strange combination of ignorance and arrogance about what they are really about."
Second, we always hear that North Korea is too irrational to deal with. You can forgive the American public for looking at North Korea and thinking the entire country was run by a crop of lunatics with a messiah complex. The weird uniforms, the massive, synchronized marches, the constant missile firings, the adulation of a single family — all of these qualities open North Korea up to criticism that it’s an irrational cult bent on world destruction.
Yet Kim Jong Un’s actions over his 9-year tenure have been anything but irrational. Put aside the hero worship and funny haircuts and North Korea has shown itself to be an unremarkable authoritarian state — vicious to internal critics and harsh to its enemies, but quite cognizant of where the red-lines are and what kind of aggression would result in an extreme U.S. military response. Far from a grave national security threat to the U.S., the Kim dynasty is more like an entity whose chief obsession — staying in power — also restrains it from acting recklessly.
Third, Washington seems to be addicted to this constantly failed notion that we can denuclearize North Korea quickly.U.S. policy has long centered on North Korea’s full, complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. Declassified U.S. government documents going back to the George H.W. Bush presidency have shown just how important this goal has been — and remains — to the Washington foreign policy community. Unfortunately, this same goal has eluded U.S. policymakers for decades and is highly unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future.
Reality has a habit of pouring ice water on the loftiest of ambitions. And the reality has been pretty clear for some time: coercing a state to swear off a nuclear weapons program is far more difficult when it already possesses nuclear weapons. No country in history has constructed several dozen nuclear warheads, only to trade them for political and economic goodies. Given its immediate environment, security fears, and the high priority it places on self-reliance, the chances of North Korea handing over the most effective deterrent a state can have is about as likely as somebody walking into a market and picking up a million-dollar lottery ticket.
Every U.S. president comes into office thinking they can make history by solving the world’s toughest problems. More often than not, those same presidents leave the job after four or eight years disappointed and chastened by the experience. If Trump or Biden hope to avoid those same pitfalls in relation to North Korea, they will need to accept the cold, hard reality that the best the United States is likely to do is manage the portfolio. That itself would be an accomplishment worth celebrating.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the National Interest, the Washington Examiner and Newsweek. He is also a fellow at Defense Priorities, a think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to introducing more realism and restraint in U.S. foreign policy.
President Donald J. Trump, Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong Un, and Republic of South Korea President Moon Jae-in talk together Sunday, June 30, 2019, outside Freedom House at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
Confiscating Russia’s sovereign assets is an act of economic war. Seizing and transferring these assets to Ukraine may make Washington feel virtuous, but it will not bring peace. Passage of this bill will only reinforce the view of hardliners in Moscow that Russia’s war lies not just with Ukraine, but really with the United States and the West. Any hope that the United States and Russia could work toward stabilizing or improving relations will subsequently be destroyed.
There is no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but enacting this bill will make peace less likely. Ukrainians have courageously defended their country for nearly two years, but even Ukraine’s former top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is now a stalemate.
Russia’s frozen assets could be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations, but once Congress provides the president the authority to seize Russian assets, there will be immense political pressure on him to carry out the policy to avoid looking weak. President Biden was recently pilloried by the media and members of my party for returning frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five American hostages. He is unlikely to make that decision again.
Confiscation will only convince Moscow that there is no negotiated settlement to be had with Ukraine. The result will be a destroyed Ukraine. More Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and more cities and towns will be turned to rubble.
History is replete with examples of economic warfare turning into violent hostilities. Many historians believe the U.S. embargo of 1807, which was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea, led to the War of 1812. Likewise, FDR’s decision to freeze Japan’s sovereign assets and implement an embargo on oil and gasoline exports led to Tokyo’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
The past teaches us the folly of embracing every proposed act of revenge. U.S. senators are duty-bound to ask whether our actions will ensure American security and prosperity. In regard to the REPO Act, the Russians already answered that question for us. Moscow says they will retaliate in kind against the United States and our allies, with some estimates claiming upward of $288 billion in Western assets that Moscow could confiscate.
Nicholas Mulder, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University, highlights the danger of the “destabilizing precedent that western countries would set by seizing assets to end a war they are not openly involved in.” Professor Mulder states that such an action “would broaden the coercive actions that states could take for disputes to which they are not a direct party.”
Confiscating Russia’s assets will also certainly convince other countries, including China, that the United States can no longer be trusted as the guarantor of the global economy. They will seek to move away from the dollar and hold their reserves in other currencies. This process of de-dollarization will be an unmitigated disaster as it will degrade America’s financial strength and ensure the prosperity Americans have come to expect is no longer attainable.
In addition, this bill will hand the Russians another tool to fuel resentment against the United States. American leaders speak of a “rules-based international order” but the theory that the United States can confiscate the assets of another country we are not at war with is legally dubious.
Professor Mulder argues that “economic reprisals are the prerogative of injured states, not of third parties.” Rather than compel respect for international law, our actions will demonstrate to our adversaries that we are flouting it. This bill will be used by the Kremlin to show the world that while Washington demands that others follow the rules, we are happy to break them whenever we see fit.
In a multipolar world, Washington can no longer expect to act with impunity, particularly when dealing with a nuclear power. We understood the serious dangers our country faced during the Cold War. But three decades of repeated foreign policy disasters proves that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is badly broken.
A good way to start on the road to fixing that broken foreign policy is rejecting this disastrous bill.
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Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)
(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.
According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.
Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.
Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.
Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.
Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.
For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.
The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.
Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.
Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.
Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.
What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.
Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.
Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.
Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.
Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.
As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.