The Negotiation of the Century

FILE - In this March 7, 2018, file photo, people watch a TV screen showing images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, and U.S. President Donald Trump at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has always wanted to lead the diplomacy aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear crisis, even as he was overshadowed in his first year in office by a belligerent standoff between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Korean letters on the screen read: "Thawing Korean Peninsula." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

Historians will compare the Trump / Pompeo North Korea negotiation with the Obama / Kerry Iran negotiation – each deals with an intractible enemy, one of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil”; each has America playing the central role on behalf of a broad coalition; each offers global destruction as a potential result of failure.

The Obama / Kerry episode looks like of a reprise of Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” – good enough to let Kerry bask in the glow of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize (at least among the glitterati Left); but not good enough to include inspection of military facilities, a cessation of missile development, or any restrictions after a decade; and greased by billions of American dollars delivered on pallets in the middle of the night. Whether or not he cancels the Iran agreement, Trump must do quantum better with North Korea.

What is needed:

1. An experienced, competent, cohesive negotiating team. One of the first rules is to understand who makes decisions. In the Iran negotiations thre was a naive hope that political divisions within Iran would somehow have the “liberals” overrule the ayatollahs. There is no such illusion in Korea – Kim Jong Un and Trump are the decision makers. The North Korean team will have a distorted view of the United States and the broader world; our State Department has been badly diminished, with no ambassador in South Korea. The replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, and the replacement of National Security Advisor General HR McMaster with John Bolton aligns a hard-nosed team, but development has skipped over Spring training and the 162 game season to begin in the playoffs. Sustained interest by the captain will be needed.

2. Clarity of goals and strategies. Obama had stated goals at the beginning of the Iran negotiations: shutting down Iran’s research sites, stopping centrifuges which produce fissile material, eliminating the stockpile of enriched uranium. None were accomplished. Trump’s goals will be similar – the verified dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program. Obama backed away from restricting Iran’s missile program; Trump will probably include this goal, but it is secondary.

3. Profound understanding of the goals and strategies of the opposition. Iran is playing a waiting game with their nuclear program with restrictions expiring after 10 years, while they have been increasing their influence in Iraq, Syria, and Qatar. This was the fatal flaw of the Iran negotiations. Kerry and Obama were committed to the crowning achievement of a deal – even if it was weak and had a 10 year sunset. This time our adversary’s goal is regime survival, with the possession of nuclear missiles seen as a tool in that direction. Having observed the demise of Muhammar Khadaffi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq after they gave up their programs, and the dismembering of Ukraine who gave up theirs after the break-up of the Soviet Union, there is much logic for Kim Jong Un’s posture. The key element of any agreement is a strong globally-agreed Chinese guarantee of Kim’s leadership.

There are reasons for optimism: Substantial trade constraints are in place, with Chinese concurrence; Kim understands that he needs to consider the positions of China and South Korea, but the discussion will be directly with Trump; despite Russia’s small border with North Korea and their UN Security Council veto, they have been excluded; and Xi Jinping apparently gave Trump a “heads up” on Kim’s visit. Perhaps the absence of an ambassador to South Korea means that Team Trump is comfortable with the State Department and CIA professionals.

This is hard, but not impossible. South Korea will be willing to pay huge bribes in order to avoid nuclear or conventional decimation. China does not want a rogue nuclear nation on its border – and could use some chips in its trade negotiations with Trump. There is some truth to the premise that Kim craves a “meeting of equals” with Trump – after all, our president is even more important than Dennis Rodman. As Obama proved, the result of a negotiation is a function of not only the hand that you are dealt, but also the skill with which it is played. Trump is no Obama; Kim is no Xi Jinping. Let’s be optimists.
This week’s video is an interview with Republican John Cox, who is currently polling second in the contest to replace Governor Jerry Brown. The premise – California has veered so far to the anti-Trump left that there is an opening for a successful businessman who offers the voters a common sense antidote to one party rule with an ultra liberal legislature. If he can get through the “top two” June primary, he may be that person.