May 9, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Karl Friedhoff, Jonathan Cheng

Deep Dish: What's Driving North Korea Negotiations?

President Trump's "Maximum pressure" campaign could be working, or Kim Jong-un's playbook could be running the show. After an historic South-North summit, The Wall Street Journal's bureau chief in Seoul, South Korea, Jonathan Cheng, joins the Council's Karl Friedhoff to examine the drivers and developments leading up to President Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-un.



Karl Friedhoff: Don't underestimate North Korea's strategy and that they're the ones who are driving this process.

Brian Hanson: One of our listeners wrote into our Facebook group, "Isn't North Korean peace just another way for Kim to legitimize his oppressive regime?"

Jonathan Cheng: Once you have a peace treaty, and then the question is, what do you need the US here for?

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're taking a deep dive into the Korean Peninsula and the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Today, joining me for this conversation is, from Seoul, Jonathan Cheng, who is the South Korea bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. Welcome, Jonathan. It's good to have you on.

Jonathan Cheng: Hi. Glad to be here.

Brian Hanson: And also here is our very own Karl Friedhoff, who's the Council's fellow for Asian policy. Welcome, Karl. It's good to have you back on.

Karl Friedhoff: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: After months of name calling, bellicose rhetoric, bragging about military prowess, in March of this year there was a surprise announcement that President Trump and North Korea leader Kim were going to meet for a summit, and current speculation is that summit is probably going to happen next month in June. Jon, I was wondering if you could lead us off with a quick overview of, for each of the sides, what do they want out of this summit? What are the most important objectives for North Korea, for the US, and for South Korea?

Jonathan Cheng: Sure. Of course, this is a difficult game to play, particularly with the North Koreans, but let start with them. I think that what we've seen from North Korea over the last year or two has been, of course, quite a dramatic change. 2017 was very much a year of threats, a year of missile launches, a year of nuclear tests ... well, just one nuclear test, but their most powerful nuclear test, and a willingness to go right up to the edge. And this year, it's completely different. It's all, "Let's work together. Let's talk together. All I want is peace."

And naturally for anyone looking at this, you're going to be skeptical. What caused this big change here? And I think you really have two schools of thought. The more optimistic take, I think, is that they sort of looked over the edge themselves and said, "Wait a minute. Maybe we've gone too far with this. Let's come to the table. Maybe we don't need our nuclear weapons anymore. Maybe Donald Trump is a guy who we can strike a deal with. He is more willing to go big in terms of giving us the things that we want. Maybe we have an opportunity here."

The other interpretation is the more skeptical interpretation, and that is that what we've seen this year has been just a big ploy and that what they want is really what we saw last year, they saw a chance to make a dash for the finish line with their nuclear missile program. They basically got right to the threshold of it where their leverage is very high, and now they're going to come. And that interpretation also sees Donald Trump as being a guy that they can make a deal with, but in this case a deal that would be to their advantage, where they could really kind of certify their nuclear status. That view is borne out by this idea that, at the inter-Korean summit last month, that they're seeking a peace treaty, and a peace treaty would solidify them as equals. It would remove any pretext for the US to be in the Korean Peninsula.

So you really have those two views, and what's the real answer? What's really going on in Kim's head? Your guess is as good as mine. I may defer to you on what you think is going on in the mind of Donald Trump. That's a game that the whole world is trying to play, although-

Brian Hanson: It's an interesting time here where we're more willing to speculate on what the North Koreans are thinking than we are on what the US president is thinking.

Jonathan Cheng: Right, exactly.

Brian Hanson: Say more, Karl. What is the speculation about what's in President Trump's mind as he approaches this?

Karl Friedhoff: Well, if you were paying attention to the confirmation hearings for Mike Pompeo while he was going through to being confirmed as secretary of state, I think there were a couple of questions that came to him about what this summit was going to be all about, and I think he said pretty clearly that he's looking for an increase in American security. In the past, the United States has always come to this saying complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization, and so any nukes had to go, and it had to be IAEA inspectors coming in. They seem to have stuck to that, but there is concern that because the focus is on "America first" and increasing American security that perhaps the United States could live with North Korea getting rid of all of its ICBMs-

Brian Hanson: So that would be the long-range missiles that can reach the US?

Karl Friedhoff: So that removes the threat to the United States, and then President Trump can then come out of any kind of summit looking like he's established and reached his goal of improving American security, all the while leaving US allies on the hook because they're still in intermediate range ballistic missile range-

Brian Hanson: So that would be countries like Korea, of course, just over the border, Japan, Philippines, and others in the region.

Karl Friedhoff: Yeah, exactly. So there would still be US allies within range, but Donald Trump could count this as a victory. He's done what his platform said it would do, which is watch out for the interest of America and leave our allies really on the hook. And that presents big worries for especially South Korea and Japan because if they do that, then there's a fear of nuclear blackmail by North Korea.

Brian Hanson: Jonathan, going back to you, South Korea, of course, has a big interest, and there was just a summit between the two leaders on the peninsula. What is South Korea looking for out of this process?

Jonathan Cheng: Well, I think South Korea is probably the easiest of the three to figure out simply because they've talked a lot about what they want in this, and we have the least reason perhaps to think that they're being disingenuous here. And I think if you go back and you look at Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, and his statements over the years, he has a pretty long track record. He was the chief of staff to the last left-leaning president about a decade ago. He's the third left-leaning president is South Korea's history favoring engagement, favoring more talks with North Korea, economic integration, those sorts of things. He ran for president in 2012. He didn't win, but he left a track record there as well. And of course, since he took office, actually, almost exactly a year ago today, he's also been pretty clear and consistent all along.

If I can just try and boil down his views, it basically comes down to the view that let's not deal with the most difficult issues. The most difficult issues are the military, the nuclear, the security issues. Those are the toughest ones. We've got to deal with them, but let's not do that first. Let's look at the areas where South Korea is stronger, and that is in the economy, in culture, in soft power, in all of these sorts of things. Let's look to those realms first because if we can sort of try and put the two Koreas side by side there, the attractiveness of our system will win out, and that means economic engagement, it means sports engagement, it means cultural engagement, and of course we've seen a lot of them in the last few months with the Olympics being hosted, very providentially for Moon, in South Korea. It gave him a great chance to invite the North. The North, the timing was right, and there were some great images from that.

I think the next phase that we're going to see is more of this economic push here because it's true, obviously, South Korea's economy dwarfs North Korea's now, even though you go back to the '60s and the '70s and they were basically at parity. So that means connecting the two Koreas with rail lines and with oil pipelines and tourism cooperation and fisheries and forestry and air routes and all the rest of it. The thinking being, if we can get these guys economically integrated into our system, then the political stuff, the military stuff, the strategic stuff will follow. That, to me, appears to be the view, and I think that's where we're headed next.

Karl Friedhoff: Jon, Karl here. You touched on this a little bit with the South Koreans trying to backload the issues on security, but everyone tends to focus on denuclearization and what that's going to mean. I assume that also means they're going to backload some of the conventional weapons worries. Right now all along the DMZ, there are artillery, there are rocket pieces. At what point do you think that the South Koreans are actually going to start to address this?

It seems like if they're really going to seek a peace agreement or a peace treaty or a peace regime, any three of those, however it ends up shaking out, it seems like a normal step that the South would also demand that North Korea start to pull back its artillery and rocket to get Seoul out from under the gun. It seems like a common step that anyone would be pursuing, but South Korea doesn't seem to have any interest. Can you give us some insight as to why South Korea is not interested in this?

Jonathan Cheng: Yeah, your right. I mean, it hasn't really come up in the discussion so far. I mean, the main concrete steps we've seen since the Panmunjom Declaration on April the 27th is the removal of loud speakers and some attempts here to rein in the balloon launches that North Korean defectors and activists try to send on into the North. We haven't seen too many actions concrete from the North Korean side. We've gotten an alignment of the time zones. That's largely a symbolic thing. You're right. And you're right that conventional generally takes the backseat to the nuclear and the WMDs, which of course includes the biological and chemical weapons programs. I guess those are just seen as the big ticket issues, and they're the ones that not only South Korea but Japan and the US can also agree on.

The problem with the conventional weapon argument, of course, is that it's sort of unique to South Korea, and arguably South Koreans you could say are less worried about a direct attack from the North. You have a large contingent of people in South Korea who I think feel that North Korea would never actually attack them. We're brothers. They won't attack us like that. I mean, they'd go for Japan first or maybe the US to sort of threaten the greatest direct threat to themselves. So I do feel like that conventional weapons piece will probably come along, but not in any of the early stages. And I think it is a matter of the fact that it is more of a singular sort of issue for South Korea as opposed to something that's shared with Japan and the US.

Brian Hanson: A number of concerns have been raised about the fact that this summit is even taking place. And one of our listeners wrote in to our Facebook group, Krzysztof wrote, "Isn't Korean peace just another way for Kim to legitimize his oppressive regime?" Is that going on here, and what are other important concerns about this process?

Karl Friedhoff: I think that is absolutely going on. We've seen a real about-face from Kim Jong-un. He's been demonized in media around the world for his prison camps/death camps, whatever you want to call them, and suddenly here he is out meeting Moon Jae-in at the DMZ. He's all smiles, he's making jokes about the food, about waking Moon up in the middle of the night with missile launches. And we've seen in South Korea already that there's been a turnaround in views of him. I haven't seen the latest polling on actual favorability, but some of the early polls indicate that 60 to 70% of the South Korean public believes that Kim Jong-un is sincere and ready to denuclearize.

And of course, if that is going to be the view, perhaps even if he does ... Let's say for some reason, I think I'm a skeptic in this, even if he does denuclearize, then what becomes of the human rights? It hasn't been raised in any of these meetings that are going on. The US has avoided it, South Korea almost always avoids it, China doesn't want it brought up because it owns a lot of the land tracks where mining is done, and it uses North Korean labor to work in those mines. So it's not really in anyone's interest to bring this up, and so that becomes the concern. So now we're ready to accept North Korea into the international community, what happens to the human rights?

And I think that's also a concern from the North Korean side and perhaps why they don't trust the United States if they are going to denuclearize. It's not only the cases of Libya and Iraq and regime change that the US has carried out there, but if they denuclearize, then that's not the end of the story for them. There's the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea. So there will continue to be a narrative, and the denuclearization is the first step to taking down the regime. I personally think that is a North Korean view. It goes on into human rights, and then it goes on from there. And so that is a big concern, I think, for North Korea, and it should be a bigger concern for the United States and South Korea as well.

Brian Hanson: Jon, anything to add on that?

Jonathan Cheng: Well, I mean, I think that what we saw in the Panmunjom Declaration is language, it's not totally new. There have been references to this in previous inter-Korean statements, but references to mutual respect, coexistence, these sorts of words put North Korea on an equal level and I think also seek to preserve the current system up there. If you ask the question, "Would you support peace if it meant the preservation of the current system in North Korea?" I think that's a question that is a difficult one because it sort of gets to your deeper preferences there, and I think in the current South Korean administration, I think there are definitely people who would say, "Yeah, actually, I think peace is more important, and if we can solidify a peace treaty first, it may preserve the system for now, but hopefully we can then move forward at that point and gradually work to bring them into our norms and to make them more like us."

And I think there are skeptics in the White House who would be on the other end of the spectrum, and they would say, "Well, we absolutely cannot do that. We cannot allow for that system to stay in place." But if that's said at all, then you can forget about Kim coming to the table if that's really going to be the stated preference. So I do think that human rights is a very tough question, and I think the people who defend the current approach right now by Moon would say, "Look, if you want to solve the human rights issue, the way to solve it is not to come to them and wave it in their face. That's just going to scare them off. You need to work with them slowly. That's the only way that you're going to do it, and it'll come in time." And of course, the folks on the other side would say, "Well, it'll never come is when."

Karl Friedhoff: I'd like to follow up. Jon mentioned the White House approach, and I would point out that this largely falls in line, that is, staying away from human rights largely falls in line with President Trump's inaugural address where he came out and said that, "It's America first, and we're going to respect the sovereignty of other states, and we're not going to tell other people how to live." So I think there's an argument to be made that this is why the United States is no longer pushing human rights, because that is now off the agenda essentially for them. We've seen that at State Department as well, where human rights, democracy promotion are largely being de-emphasized to move forward. And perhaps that was something that North Korea caught on to and may have helped pull them out to the table, realizing that perhaps we can deal with the nuclear issues and the human rights issues will stay completely separate to be dealt with later, if at all.

Jonathan Cheng: Karl, if I can jump in there, keep in mind, too, though, that we get a lot of conflicting messages from this administration, but Trump's State of the Union did feature a lot of human rights there. You had Ji Seong-ho, the defector, raising his crutches quite memorably inside the Capitol Building. And then you had Otto Warmbier's father traveling with Mike Pence to the Olympics. So you had glimpses of that, but I agree with you, it doesn't really add up to a coherent kind of approach on human rights. But it's not to say that it hasn't come up at all. Now, how much did Donald Trump write his State of the Union address? I don't know, but it hasn't been completely absent.

Karl Friedhoff: Yeah, that's true. And he also brought it up at his speech to the National Assembly in South Korea. He kind of talked quite a bit-

Jonathan Cheng: That's right. That's right.

Karl Friedhoff: ... about human rights. So, yeah, you're right to say that there has been some of that going on, but you're also right to say that we're not sure how much of those speeches Donald Trump actually wrote. I think we both know the answer to that.

Brian Hanson: In terms of the actual summit meeting and what could come out of this meeting, in each of your views, what does success look like? Some people point out we've been here before at these points where there is direct negotiation going on, and it didn't deliver on what people had hoped. In this case, what would success be?

Karl Friedhoff: For me, success for Donald Trump looks a lot like bringing the three remaining American prisoners in North Korea home with him. Perhaps they'll be released before that, but if not, certainly they may even go so far as to go on Air Force One with him, some kind of big photo opportunity. And essentially not making things worse, kind of laying the foundations for this to move forward. I think with those, that's a very, very low bar, and North Korea seems already ready to agree to the release of the prisoners, reports having them moved out of the prisons and into Pyongyang, perhaps to probably heal them up a little bit and make them look a little more presentable.

But yeah, I think that's all really Donald Trump can ask for. If he can do those two things and continue this thing on, I think he can come out and say, "See, we're moving forward. I am a negotiator, I know what I'm doing, and I'm going to get this thing done." Jon, do you want to add in there or add in the North Korean side?

Jonathan Cheng: Yeah. I mean, one of the things I thought was most interesting among Trump's remarks lately was at his press conference with Macron at the White House. I don't remember the context of how it came up exactly, but he was making the point that, "Look, a lot of people think I'm going to just strike a simple deal and claim victory. Well, I'm not going to do that. I'm insisting on nothing less than denuclearization. That's what I want." Something like that. And that was an interesting remark because it did exhibit a great deal of self-awareness about how he's being perceived in all of this and what the potential traps are.

I mean, a lot of the people on the right who are skeptical about this would say exactly that. They're worried. Or even on the left, really, would say that Donald Trump is looking for an easy victory, that's all he wants. He just wants the photo op and that's it. And for him to directly rebut that is interesting. Now, directly rebutting it and actually living up to what he said is a different thing entirely, but it was interesting to me to just hear him say that.

Brian Hanson: In that vein, this negotiation or this process leading up to the summit is happening in a context in which there are other nuclear issues in the news, most importantly Iran. This is being recorded on Tuesday morning. This afternoon, President Trump is holding a press conference in which it is assumed he's going to announce that he's walking away from the nuclear deal with Iran.

One of his strong criticisms has been that deal wasn't good enough. It didn't lock down and denuclearize forever Iran. It didn't address other issues about bad behavior in the neighborhood, missiles tests and other things. In terms of that context, is Trump vulnerable to the same kind of criticism in North Korea? Or do we think he's going to get a grand, big bargain on denuclearization? Jonathan, I'll start with you.

Jonathan Cheng: Yeah, no, that's a great question. I really don't know. There are plenty of cases that you could make. I mean, a lot of his negotiating tactics, and we've seen this in South Korea here on KORUS and on [crosstalk 00:20:53]-

Brian Hanson: Which is the free trade agreement, right?

Jonathan Cheng: ... the free trade agreement, is basically to make a big fuss about things, come in with quite a strong negotiating line but, at the end of the day, pretty cosmetic changes, claim victory. So precisely what he said he wasn't going to be doing during that Macron press conference with regards to North Korea.

I guess one cynical way to look at it is to say, well, he can call it a great deal, and even if it falls apart, it may be after he is out of office anyways, and maybe he doesn't care so much. It's also possible that he could say, and we've heard this refrain from him for the last couple of months, which is, "This is a horrible situation. I inherited a terrible deal. It should've been dealt with 20 years ago." He may well turn to his constituents and say, "Look, I had a terrible situation here. I was working with a bad hand. If I didn't strike this deal, things would be much worse. And look, it's not my problem. It was Obama and Bush's and everyone else's problem. I'm just cleaning up the mess as best I can."

There's a certain element of truth to that if you were to say that because I think anyone, even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, if Bernie Sanders, if anyone had won the election, they would've inherited the same sort of mess as well. And to give credit where credit is due, Donald Trump is the first president I think perhaps ever to make North Korea such a consistently high priority. You may not think he's the right guy to solve the issue, but he, without question, has been bringing it up every single week. Hard to remember a week where he hasn't brought it up. Even sometimes when it wasn't in the news, he just would find a way to bring it back up again.

So that's the difference, but whether or not he's going to strike a good deal, that's something I can't predict right now.

Karl Friedhoff: Yeah. On the possibility of striking a grand bargain, it's not only the US side obviously we have to be concerned about. Does North Korea really want a grand bargain? Personally, I am a skeptic. I don't think so. But it does bring up the issue of timelines. And the fact that I was recently in Seoul where I saw Jon, of course, and a lot of other people were in Seoul as well as the summit was approaching and for a security conference, and people around the Moon administration, they had laid out essentially a two-year timeline saying that, "We'll have these summits, and then within two years, we think North Korea can be completely denuclearized."

The problem is, is the people around the Trump administration have given no indication that two years is appropriate. My reading of it is that they're going to be looking for something much, much faster than that. You look at one of the common refrains about North Korea is that they're coming to the negotiating table to stall for time. And so they may have a new development they need to get to, they're not quite ready to carry out the next test. I'm not saying that I necessarily buy into that, but I think John Bolton, the national security advisor, and several others around the administration do buy into. And so if it gets into two years, even one year I think is going to be too long, and there aren't significant giveaways by North Korea, that we're going to see a failure of negotiations.

Now, what comes after that, I don't know, but I do think there is a misalignment between South Korea and the United States on the timelines they think are appropriate for North Korea to actually try to denuclearize, and that's going to create problems within the alliance itself.

Brian Hanson: Jon, are you hearing anything from the South Korean side on this? Any concerns about a misalignment like Karl just laid out?

Jonathan Cheng: Well, I don't think it's just between South Korea and the US. I think here, South Korea is probably closer to the North Korean view and, in fact, the Chinese view. I think there is a view that, look, talking, even forestalling an escalation of tensions or a turn to where we were last year is a positive in and of itself. And again, it's like baby steps. You talk about that economic engagement approach that I discussed earlier, and that really is one that takes time.

Some of the details of a grand bargain necessarily take time. The verification and the making sure that everything is complied with, that can't be all done and dusted, as the Brits say, in six months or something. You would need a lot more time than that to take care of all of this. Would North Korea be open to anytime, anywhere inspections? What about all the knowledge and all the technological prowess that's sort of residing in North Korean scientists and sort of in their collective memory?

I mean, that sort of stuff, it's like you need to sort of be perpetually vigilant that this is being abided with. Maybe that's what we're seeing in this shift from Mike Pompeo switching from talking about complete, verified, irreversible denuclearization, CVID, to talk a PVID, a permanent, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.

Brian Hanson: From acronyms to other important issues that are being brought into focus in this process. Jon, you wrote an interesting piece recently about the potential implications on US troops stationed in South Korea there. Some 28,000 US troops there. There has been some speculation along with some comments made both in the US and by South Koreans about the potential that this process will lead to a drawdown or even a pullout of US troops from the peninsula. Why is this issue important, and what might we see happen there?

Jonathan Cheng: Well, I think the issue is important because a lot of people on the skeptical side of the fence here, they think that what North Korea is really angling for in these talks is a withdrawal of the US military presence. There's a view that's been quite hotly debated here this year that says that what North Korea wants to do is to remove the US from the peninsula to eventually move towards reunification of the peninsula on its own terms. That doesn't necessarily mean a military invasion, but it would sort of require the US to be gone.

This idea that they're moving towards a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, once you have a peace treaty, then the question is, what do you need the US here for? Because the US is right now under the terms of the armistice that ended most of the fighting in 1953 was basically, look, they're an enemy combatant, and so the war is still on, so that is the justification for why troops are still there.

So I think it's definitely an issue that North Korea has been pushing for decades. Back in the '70s, Jimmy Carter toyed with the idea of pulling out US troops. Under Rumsfeld, as defense secretary, there were also rumblings of this as well-

Brian Hanson: In the George W. Bush administration.

Jonathan Cheng: But I think Donald Trump, is he a president who might actually be more open to it than in the past, and here is a president who has said again and again, "We don't need to have all those troops there defending South Korea." So I think he's trying to have a meeting of minds there potentially.

And Moon in the middle here has said that it's essential that we have US troops, but of course there are many people in his own base who would be glad to see the US gone for many of the same reasons that the North wants them gone. Not necessarily for unification on North Korea's terms, but they just don't ... There's a strain of "Yankee go home" in South Korea, and that's a part of Moon's base.

Karl Friedhoff: Yeah, I'd follow up on that. There's been a fairly collective freak out across the United States of people who follow this, and they're looking at the timing of this as they're going into negotiations, into the summit. In some ways, I find it understandable that Trump would be asking about this right now. Of course, the fact that the story got out probably isn't great because of the timing-

Brian Hanson: Right. And it was leaked that Trump had directed Mattis, the defense secretary, to start drawing up plans for what a drawdown could look like.

Karl Friedhoff: Yeah, that's right. That's right. In the past, the US has drawn down troops in South Korea before. I believe the number used to be about 37 to 40,000 troops. Now we're at 28,000. So to step down perhaps to 20,000 or wherever it's going to go, I think there's a good argument to actually be made for that. And this fits in line, again, with the Trump policy of as we need our allies to do more. I think there's not really any question of that being a reality. We need to see that in NATO, we need to see that from South Korea, and eventually I think we'll see more of that from Japan as well as they look at revising their constitution. But yeah, obviously the timing of this is not great.

I'd also go into when we think about the South Korean public's attitude towards the United States and the alliance, we often hear numbers that ... They put support in the range of 90 to 95%, and they've been that way for quite some time. But I would draw a distinction because if you look at the actual question wording in Korean, the word that they use is not "support." The word that is most often used is "necessary." So, "Is the US alliance necessary for South Korea?" And that's why you get these very high numbers, and that deals with threat perceptions.

So then the question becomes, if North Korea is no longer a threat, we signed a peace agreement, then what becomes of the US alliance? So I think that President Moon is playing a bit of a game here in the sense that his advisor, Moon Chung-in ... Of course, by law I think I have to say that they are not related. Moon Chung-in, the advisor, has said that, "Well, after this agreement is done, the troops can go home. We don't need them." Moon has said, no, that's not the case. It's-

Brian Hanson: President Moon said that's not the case.

Karl Friedhoff: President Moon has said that's not the case, there's something outside of this. But I think what he's actually saying and maybe intending is that he can let public opinion do that job on its own. He doesn't need to come out and say, "Yes, the troops need to go home." Instead, over time, if the threat is removed, the South Korean public should ... theoretically, the support for the US alliance should start to erode. So he has a way of stepping back out of the kind of fray with an idea that over time this may take place, which may or may not be his goal. I don't know.

The one countervailing fact is that the South Korean public is also highly ... Well, in the public opinion polling, they see China as an economic and military threat. Somewhere on the level of 80 to 85%. So even if North Korea's removed, the South Korean public may then switch over the necessity part to China, and the support may remain. Not at 90 to 95%, but I think it will stay probably in the 70's, and so we'll see the US alliance continue along with troops in South Korea.

Brian Hanson: I want to pick up on one part of that, which is China. And surprisingly, given the situation and China's proximity, the discussion has been dominated by the US and North Korea with South Korea being taken into account, and China has been hardly part of this discussion, right? And this is in big contrast to as recently as this fall and winter when President Trump was saying China can take care of this problem and they should take care of this problem. What role does China play in how this summit process plays out? Are they completely outside of it and they've just been shut out? Or do they need to play a role in order for us to get to the goals of denuclearization or other goals in this process?

Jonathan Cheng: Well, just a few hours before we got taping this, we had Kim Jong-un showing up in China again to meet with Xi Jinping, the president there. What they talked about sounds a lot like what we've been hearing from Kim lately: "If I don't have a threat against me, there's no need for nuclear weapons and all those other stuff." Surely, there's a lot more that's being discussed that we're not going to know and we're not going to be privy to. And I think, of course that that's really where the nub of everything is. And whether or not this is Kim being summoned by the Chinese emperor in very traditional Confucian thinking, or whether this is China feeling left out and needing to stay in the game, I mean, those are two very different interpretations.

And to be honest, I don't really know what it is. I think it's hard to tell, and there may be elements of both here. You have to think that, in some ways, they can be the make or break. If they want this to go a certain way, they have a powerful swing vote. But whether that be sanctions or whether that be in terms of bringing them into compliance with whatever they might agree on with Donald Trump, there are all sorts of different roles for them to play here, and I'm not sure that it's clear to us on the outside, of course not being in the room to hear what these two men are talking about.

Karl Friedhoff: Now, I tend to take more of the view that we've essentially seen China being cut out of this process. As we move forward with the summits, with all of the back and forth between South Korea and the US and North Korea, I don't even think I've heard anyone really mention China in a way that it seems like no one even wants them involved. And for me, it continues to look like China is trying to shoehorn its way into this.

So the question is, do we really need China? Is China remaining a key player? Of course the answer is yes, eventually, as Jonathan just mentioned the fact that they have a powerful swing vote, but it doesn't seem like anyone is all that interested in what they have to say at this moment. I would remind, if we think about this geographically, of course China has a huge interest in, number one, the one-one view is keeping North Korea as a buffer state. I won't go into that argument. That's been kind of beat to death.

I think the more interesting argument is on the economic side where their provinces that are up in that region are not doing that well economically-

Brian Hanson: These are the Chinese provinces.

Karl Friedhoff: Yes-

Brian Hanson: This is just over the border of North Korea, right?

Karl Friedhoff: Yeah, the Chinese provinces. And they're not doing that well economically. The central bank of China is laying out plans and inviting all of this research about, how do we revive, especially the Jilin Province? What are we going to do with it? And from China's perspective, let's say that North Korea was suddenly to denuclearize and become connected by railroads, gas lines, I think that would really economically revitalize that entire part of China, which has been struggling a little bit. And so there is a big interest from China, on the economic side anyway, for a denuclearization because it really opens up the region, and I think we'd see somewhat of an economic boom take place, not only in North Korea but China and South Korea as well.

Brian Hanson: As we close, I want to ask each of you the same question, which is, what do you think is either missing from the debate, the current public discussion over these issues or is underappreciated that our listeners should really pay attention to as events unfold?

Karl Friedhoff: As I think about it, for me, it's whose agenda are we really playing by? Who's kind of directing things? There's been a lot of speculation about, is Trump driving this with his economic sanctions and maximum pressure threats of "fire and fury." I tend to think that we're actually still playing by the Kim Jong-un playbook. This all started essentially from his New Year's address. He has the big rush to finish his nuclear program and missile program, as Jonathan mentioned previously. He's kind of right on the precipice of what looks like a reentry vehicle and being able to reliably deliver a weapon to the United States.

It's not as if the South Koreans have never wanted to engage North Korea under a conservative government. Every president comes in in South Korea saying, "Yes, we want to have good relations with North Korea. We want to try to economically engage them," but they never have a North Korea that will play ball. North Korea almost immediately shuts them down any time there's a new conservative president coming in.

We look at Park Geun-hye, the now-impeached president, what, she just got sentenced to about 24 years in jail, so we won't be seeing her for quite some time, but she came in with an idea of this thing called "trustpolitik." That it's going to be an action-for-action process, we're going to build trust, and we're slowly going to get to where we need to be. To me, that doesn't sound wholly unlike what the progressives have often said with Sunshine Policy. "We're going to deal with the soft issues first, and the hard issues will come later." But suddenly, we have a progressive in South Korea, and now North Korea's ready to play ball.

So again, it's all, I think, driven by North Korea. They've decided for whatever internal reasons that they're out there, they're ready to do this. And we have to take into account the fact that not only do they have a leader that they think they can work with in South Korea, but I would be very surprised if they haven't made the same assumption about Donald Trump.

The United States, South Korea, I think just about everyone has their psychological profiles of Kim Jong-un. I've sat through some of those briefings, and they're based on lipreading off of very scant evidence from the few videos that are posted on YouTube. They're based on all these weird things. Well, think of the amount of material that the North Koreans have to create a psychological profile of Donald Trump.

So I think they've come to the conclusion that this is someone that they think they'll be able to strike either no deal with, which even so they got the meeting, great because it will be a great photo op, or they may be able to get one over on him once they actually get into the meeting room and they seem some alignment. So don't underestimate North Korea's strategy and that they're the ones who are driving this process.

Brian Hanson: And, Jon, missing or underappreciated from the public discussion?

Jonathan Cheng: Yeah, maybe one thought that comes to me is this sense that Kim Jong-un, unlike his father and his grandfather, is very early in his time in charge here. He's, what, mid-30s. Presumably he wants to live for another 50 or 60 years. The global community and the US feels burned by North Korea twice under Kim Jong-il. The grandfather, Kim Il-sung, met with Jimmy Carter, but that was after he was out of office. He never really tried anything this high stakes before, and he's doing it very early in his career, I guess, if you want to put it that way.

I think what happens this time around is going to be remembered for a long time. And if it proves that this is kind of a cynical play on his part, Trump is going to be difficult to win back, I think. I mean, I say that of course, and people would say, "Well, we've had two of these instances before with Kim Jong-il not too long ago. And again, in a certain view of things, the North Koreans cheated twice, and now they're going to cheat us again." But you can always argue this time around, look, Kim Jong-un is not his father. He's a millennial. It's a different generation. He was educated abroad. He's seen different things. He's shaped by a different world view.

But, look, for the next 50 years, it's going to be hard for him to go back to this playbook again. So I think that's an interesting thing. Of course, by that point, he may be an acknowledged nuclear state and it doesn't matter so much. But I still do think that it's very interesting, and what we see play out in the next few months I think is going to be very important for trying to understand how he is going to run the show for the next few decades, if that's how long he lasts.

Karl Friedhoff: Can I follow up on that quickly? I think that's a really interesting idea, and I wonder if you're right that this is maybe his one chance to get this right, and I do wonder if he's had ... With his few years, he's gone through his purges, and maybe he's gotten everyone in line to the point that he is ready to make a grand bargain with the idea that he doesn't want to live the next 40 to 50 years only basically being trapped in North Korea. And he's gotten all the generals that are all based in Pyongyang, saying, "Yes, that you're all rich now, but wait until we can economically reform. And even if that means denuclearization, that not only will you be rich but you're going to be filthy rich. Rich beyond your wildest dreams." And perhaps that has brought them all into line.

And maybe the nukes really are on the table precisely for that reason. I'm skeptical about that, but it's the only way I can kind of bring into line about one way that this would play out with denuclearization actually taking place.

Brian Hanson: Karl and Jon, thanks for really a fascinating discussion. And clearly there's a lot at stake for Northeast Asia, as well as for the world. Thanks so much for being on the show. And Jon, I know it's very late in Seoul, so a special thanks for coming and doing this so late. Thanks to you both.

Karl Friedhoff: Thank you.

Jonathan Cheng: It was very fun. Thanks for having me.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who express them and not The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

If you like the show, please let us know by tapping the Subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under "Deep Dish on Global Affairs" wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you think you know someone who would like this episode, please tap the Share button on your app and send it to them. If you have questions about anything you heard today or if you want to submit questions for an upcoming episode, please join our Facebook group Deep Dish on Global Affairs.

This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Joe Palermo. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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