The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi this week is a sideshow to the titanic struggle underway for the Trump administration’s North Korea policy.
On one side appears to be U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun and, perhaps, the president himself. They are willing to toss aside decades of U.S. policy to engage with North Korea along the lines of the so-called Sunshine Policy, the approach embraced by progressive South Korean leaders from Kim Dae-jung to Moon Jae-in. The idea is a simple one: Hostility causes Kim to cling to his nuclear weapons, as the cold wind makes people pull their coats more tightly around themselves. But the warm sun can cause those same people to willingly abandon their coats. The idea is that the same approach might cause Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons, or at least his hostility to his neighbors.
Representing the cold wind is pretty much the rest of the government bureaucracy. National Security Advisor John Bolton appears particularly eager to keep blowing. These officials continue to believe that reducing the tension between the United States and North Korea requires North Korea to disarm first. In fairness to Bolton, this has been a consistent view of past administrations, although with varying degrees of rigidity in negotiations.
Over the past week or so, there have been a series of press reports indicating that many of these officials are concerned by how little progress is being made on the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons in advance of the Hanoi meeting and alarmed at how much North Korea is being offered. According to a story in Politico, these officials worry “that Trump, eager to declare victory on the world stage, could make big concessions in exchange for empty promises of denuclearization.” It’s not clear what U.S. concessions are on the table, but possibilities include a declaration that the Korean War is over, the opening of diplomatic relations, and an end to sanctions. [Continue reading…]