Mon, Jun 04, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Kim bets Trump will accept half a deal in Singapore talks

By Noah Feldman  /  Bloomberg

Like so much else that US President Donald Trump does, the North Korea negotiations dance is all about breaking the unwritten rules. Past US presidents would have never allowed themselves to be put in the position where they could appear to be jerked around by a tin-pot dictator. Trump genuinely does not care.

However, how far would Trump go in breaking the rules, especially if a Nobel Peace Prize were in the offing? Would Trump be prepared to sign a peace treaty ending the Korean War and freezing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program without insisting that North Korea definitively denuclearize?

In announcing on Friday that the Tuesday next week summit in Singapore was back on — after calling it off last week — Trump said: “We are going to deal and we are really going to start a process.”

“Remember what I say, we will see what we will see,” he added.

A partial deal would essentially mimic former US president Barack Obama’s deal with Iran, which Trump long condemned and from which he has withdrawn. Making a deal with North Korea that is essentially the same as the Iran deal would be an extraordinary act of political self-refutation.

Yet Trump embodies what you might call the Walt Whitman principle of politics:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself;

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

It is therefore conceivable that Trump would be willing to make a partial deal with North Korea.

I can think of at least two important players who seem to think so.

One is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It seems almost impossible that he would permanently give up his nuclear capability — his only significant bargaining chip with the rest of the world. That way lies the fate of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi or former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

If Kim is actually hoping to get some sort of an agreement out of Trump, he must imagine that it is possible that Trump would agree to something less than full denuclearization.

The other is John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser. A wily, experienced operator such as Bolton does not just accidentally bring up Libya as an example when discussing the North Korean talks.

The best interpretation of his remarks is that Bolton knew perfectly well that North Korea would respond to the Libya comparison by making a fuss and threatening to withdraw from the negotiations.

If Bolton expected that to happen, he must have wanted it to happen — because he fears that if the summit takes place, Trump will be tempted to agree to a partial deal so he can declare victory and go to Oslo to pick up his Nobel.

For a hawk like Bolton, the partial deal scenario is a nightmare. Would it actually be so bad?

Gary Samore, who was Obama’s arms-control coordinator and has many years of experience negotiating with North Korea, thinks otherwise.

He said it would be valuable if negotiations led to a test freeze that could be sustained for years and then lead to partial dismantling of weapons.

The basic logic of Samore’s view is that other than negotiations, there is no credible way to pressure Kim. Negotiations and peace are better than confrontation and war.

This is, of course, the same logic that led to Obama’s Iran deal. If you think that deal made sense, there is reason to think that a partial deal with North Korea would, too.

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