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Trump, Kim, and the Breaking of Coalitions

Trump, Kim, and the Breaking of Coalitions

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-in plan to meet somewhere, maybe in June.

As you have probably heard. President Donald J. Trump has accepted an invitation to visit North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.* People who were genuinely worried that Trump was going to start a needless war with North Korea now seem to be nearly as worried that he is going to talk to them and inadvertently trigger a calamity. In normal circumstances, of course, as Winston Churchill reportedly said in 1954, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” (It rhymes when Churchill says it.) Still, there is room for concern.

An Incentive to Break Coalitions

Although Trump apparently regarded the invitation itself as a major breakthrough, North Korean leaders have actually been trying to negotiate with Americans for generations. It’s the Americans who refused. Once upon a time, the North Koreans refused to talk to South Korea’s leaders at all, insisting that they must deal directly with the “puppet masters,” not the “puppets.” Over the years, they have adapted to changing circumstances and developed new ways to try to split the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Countries facing a hostile coalition will always have an incentive to try to break it up.

Thus, in giving this year’s New Year’s Day speech—in the face of a new administration in Seoul that was eager to improve relations and an administration in Washington that was intensely hostile—Kim Jong-un gave different messages geared to the primary interests of the different audiences. To Seoul he offered to begin a dialogue, ease military tensions, and create a peaceful environment; to Washington he highlighted that “the mainland of the United States is within range of our nuclear strike” and promised to accelerate the production of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles. This, to say the least, appears to be a combination designed to elicit a differentiated response. Given this background, it seems reasonable to expect that when Kim offered to negotiate denuclearization with the United States—an offer he made to a South Korean delegation—he may well have assumed Trump would reject the offer, further aggravating relations between Washington and Seoul. Trump’s quick and unexpected acceptance might then explain the fact that it took three weeks, a side trip to Beijing, and a secret visit by the CIA director for Kim to acknowledge that he had actually made the offer. But acknowledge it he eventually did.

Given the nature of the story so far, the summit itself may not prove very productive and could even be quite counterproductive if excessive hopes are dashed. Cause for concern can be found in the likely clash between the two sides’ expectations. What, for instance, do Trump and Kim expect to get out of the summit? And what strengths do they believe they have going into it?


In terms of goals, of course, we do not know what either man, Trump or Kim, is thinking at the moment, but we do know what each side’s expressed fundamental goals have been up to now. Those goals suggest trouble if neither side changes. North Korea’s immediate goal is to solicit acknowledgment of its status as a nuclear power and the sort of treatment that is accorded to that status, certainly to include an end to all sanctions. Kim has reportedly agreed to discuss the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but that oft-repeated refrain is normally conditioned on guarantees of North Korean security (e.g., the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and perhaps Japan, the renunciation of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the end of U.S. extended deterrence—the so-called nuclear umbrella—with regard to South Korea) that amount to guarantees of South Korean insecurity. No doubt, Kim has taken notice of Trump’s stated willingness to bring U.S. troops home from South Korea.

The United States’ immediate goal is the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and production facilities. This has become such a standard demand that it has its own abbreviation, CVID. As generally understood, it does not include the sort of security guarantees that Pyongyang finds necessary.

Clearly the U.S. goal clashes with the North Korean goal. It will be even harder to achieve now that North Korea actually has nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them (even if some technical finishing touches may still be required). Even in far more mundane matters than potential nuclear annihilation, psychologists tell us that people will willingly pay a higher price to avoid losing something that they already have than they will pay to acquire something new that is objectively comparable in value. To be sure, the stakes in the current situation are not mundane, and the North Koreans will not trust the Americans simply to keep their word. To Pyongyang’s way of thinking—as surprising as it will be to many Americans—the history of U.S.-North Korean negotiations has been one of unfulfilled U.S. promises, and North Koreans are quick to point out that both Saddam Hussein and Mu’ammar Qadhafi gave up their nuclear programs (in return for express guarantees from the United States in the latter case) only to be hunted down and killed by their enemies afterward, whereas the North Koreans have kept theirs and are still around to tell about it.


If the two sides’ goals clash, what expectations do they bring to the table in terms of their relative bargaining strength? Listen to virtually any pundit on U.S. television and the impression you will get is that North Korea is coming to this summit because the United States compelled it to, be it a consequence of economic sanctions, bellicose threats, or the force of Donald Trump’s personality. This seems to be the general American perception, and it is likely one that the president shares (especially the part about the effect of Donald Trump’s personality). Having forced North Korea to the table, President Trump may well believe that he has the leverage to force Kim to accept the terms that he offers with little or no bargaining. If Trump’s view of the Iran deal is indicative, he may believe that bargaining itself is inappropriate in any case.

Kim Jong-un, however, may see it differently. Even if sanctions have played a major role in his recent actions, and it is hard to believe that they haven’t, other factors may be pushing in the same general direction and influencing his thinking. For example, China may be pressing him simply to lay off the provocations until the threat of war blows over. Or he may believe that North Korea’s success in developing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles has increased his own leverage and forced the United States to negotiate. After all, the United States, not North Korea, changed its position on direct negotiations. If this is the case, it makes it all the less likely that Kim will respond positively to a demand for complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement.

Regarding the tactics of bargaining, Trump, referring to his experience as a deal-maker in business, has suggested that the secret to winning a negotiation is for him to threaten to take his money and walk away from the table. That may be a feasible tactic when the objective is to arrange some mutually profitable business deal, when many business entities are eager or at least willing to make that deal, and when any of them would be a viable partner. When the objective is to avoid war on the Korean Peninsula, however, there are a limited number of potential partners who can affect the outcome, and North Korea must certainly be counted among them. One cannot simply walk away and declare victory.

Finally, Trump has also suggested that his ability to withhold the recently renegotiated U.S.-South Korean trade agreement strengthens his position vis-à-vis North Korea. This assertion has confused many trade experts since it implies leverage over South Korea rather than North Korea. If the president thinks he can coerce South Korea into bringing North Korea into a deal, he has yet to explain why he thinks South Korea has such leverage but has not used it itself. Some have suggested that he just confused the two Koreas.

China: The Weak and Vital Link in the Sanctions Chain

Sitting as we do at the center of the world, Americans tend to assume that other countries are focused primarily, if not entirely, on us. With regard to North Korea’s current, troubled situation, the Americans will present demands and wait for North Korea to satisfy those demands in order to ease its circumstances. Even if sanctions are what forced North Korea to negotiate, however, the United States is not the central player; China is. The United States, to be sure, was central to crafting the sanctions regime, but it never had any trade with North Korea to curtail. Fifteen years ago, China, South Korea, and Japan each accounted for about 20 percent of North Korea’s trade, but as other countries began imposing sanctions, trade shifted to China until that country accounted for 90 percent by itself. China’s decision last year to begin enforcing sanctions seriously is what has changed the situation. Thus, China is the country that North Korea must satisfy. China is the key to breaking the sanctions coalition.

At the same time, we do not really know what demands Chinese leaders have made behind the scenes, or perhaps more importantly, what Kim believes it will take to satisfy them. In addition to being the vital link in the chain that is the sanctions regime, China is also the weak link. It was always reluctant to impose sanctions on North Korea, and a collapse of the North Korean regime is the last thing that Chinese leaders want to see, which puts natural limits on how far they are willing to press sanctions. China’s resolve may be weakened further if its leaders see Trump’s demands as unreasonable. Thus, Kim may well believe that all he has to do is convince the Chinese that he tried to negotiate with Trump but that accommodation with him proved impossible (and perhaps promise to lay off the provocations for a while). If Trump tries to take his assets and walk away from the table, deal-maker style, the result could well be to convince China that he is not serious and thus hand a diplomatic victory to Kim.

Breakthrough, Fizzle, or Calamity?

We cannot completely rule out the possibility that the Trump-Kim summit will produce a major breakthrough in U.S.-North Korean relations, or that Trump will simply accept any offer that strikes him as positive sounding at the moment, but it is not likely. Both leaders are inexperienced in such negotiations, and both seem prone to impetuous behavior (although, to be fair, Trump has never executed any of his relatives). The meeting will lack the months, sometimes years, of preliminary lower-level negotiations that usually precede a summit of this sort. The best that one could hope for might be a joint declaration of goals and perhaps an outline of how to work toward achieving them. To be honest, given the foregoing discussion, that does not seem likely either.

That leaves two possibilities. The meeting could be a fizzle, something that produces little but disappointment and perhaps a few tweets crowing about imaginary achievements, moral victories, or the deceitfulness of the other side. In that case, North Korea and China could be the most likely winners. Or, as some have feared, the meeting could result in calamity. One or both leaders could be so shocked and enraged by the other’s seemingly outlandish expectations that he, or they, resort to resolving the politics by other means. This is not a necessary outcome, but it cannot be excluded either.

*Technically, he is not President Kim Jong-un. That title is still held by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. (Evidently, president-for-life was just not good enough.) The current leader has several titles, including Chairman of the Commission on State Affairs (formerly the National Defense Commission), which is the actual leadership position in the state, and Chairman of the Korean Workers’ Party. (His late father, Kim Jong-il, is of course the Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party.)



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.