June 14, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Karl Friedhoff, Katrin Katz

Deep Dish: Trump-Kim Summit: What Happened, Why, and What’s Next

President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un held a historic summit and signed a “comprehensive” agreement. To break down what happened, how we got here, and what all this means, Asia experts Katrin Katz and Karl Friedhoff join Brian Hanson on this week’s Deep Dish.



Katrin Katz: We need to think of a way for North Korea's life with nuclear weapons to be harder, not easier. Without the alliance, and without the exercises, without the readiness, and without the strong trilateral bond, why give up weapons?

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 talking about the recent summit between North Korea's Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump to discuss nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Today I'm joined by Karl Friedhoff, Deep Dish regular and also the Council's fellow on Asian policy. Welcome, Karl. It's good to have you back.

Karl Friedhoff: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: I'm also joined today by Katrin Katz, a Korea and east Asian affairs expert who is the former director for Japan, Korea, and oceanic affairs on the staff of the National Security Council for George W. Bush's administration. She is now an adjunct fellow and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a recent PhD from the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University, where I originally met Katrin. Thanks so much for being here.

Katrin Katz: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: As we all know, on Monday, June 11th, there was a historic summit between President Trump and North Korea leader Kim. The first question, let me start with you, Karl, is in a nutshell, what are the most important outcomes from this meeting?

Karl Friedhoff: On the outcomes, I think the most important of these outcomes is the ability for both sides to spin their own narrative. Essentially, the four points of the agreement, at least the first three points of the agreement, are vague enough that both sides can come out and say, "This is what we meant, this is how we see it, and this is why it's a win for us." We need to look no further than I think it was point three of the agreement, that says "the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." What is missing from that is the V and the I, the verifiable and irreversible. If you watch Secretary Pompeo's interview afterwards, he was asked by a reporter, "Is this going to be verified? Is this going to be irreversible?" Secretary Pompeo said, "Of course it is." However, those words do not appear in the agreement, and that's going to allow North Korea to say, "What verification, and why is it needed? Because that's not something we agreed to."

Brian Hanson: Terrific. Katrin, how do you see ... Are there additional things you see that came out of this that you'd point us to?

Katrin Katz: Yeah. I'd dovetail off of what Karl said. I think part of the ability for both sides to spin their own narratives comes from the fakeness, which is the main thing that's been criticized as we watch the press and news. Today's headlines, since I had a little bit of time to look at it, says, "Ongoing uncertainty," however you want to spin that, whether that's okay or not. This is exactly the issue that Karl has touched upon, talking about. Both sides can spin it however they like, and that is the result of this vague declaration that came out.

Katrin Katz: On an, I guess, more positive note, it's undeniable that this summit process did help to reduce tensions on the peninsula. That's something that we need to, I think, credit the South Korean government for kick-starting. It's something that we've seen over the last couple of months, but of course, if this summit did not happen, we'd be in a different place. I think that's important to acknowledge, as well. While there is, I think, justifiable concern regarding the vagueness of the declaration that was issued, we are in a place within a process. We'll see. Time will tell. We're within a process that, in my view, is better than being outside of the process.

Karl Friedhoff: Right. That idea that are now in a process, which is right, I think the president has now acknowledged that, is somewhat different from where we began. Because he went into this saying that this is going to be a one-shot deal. We were going to sit down, hammer everything out. We came, we saw, we conquered. Off we go, and we have everything we want. As the summit got closer, it started to become a process. For the foreseeable future, at least there will be ongoing talks led by Pompeo and his team, but my concern is, if North Korea is going to play this out, and pocket their concessions, and not offer anything else, that eventually we're going to see hard-liners within the administration start to push back and say, "This is North Korea up to its old tricks. We need to start thinking about other options." Then things could get very scary, very quickly.

Brian Hanson: So often, when there are contemporary events like this summit, all the focus is on what's happening immediately, but these challenges come out of a longer history. Sometimes it's important to know key elements of that longer history. I was wondering, Katrin, if you could just share with us, as we look at this relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, and North Korea's role in the region over a longer period of time, what's the most important things for us to understand as we go into trying to untangle this particular summit?

Katrin Katz: I think a good, useful starting point is regarding the alliance, an alliance that was forged after the armistice was signed in 1953. The treaty was 1954. This is important because we're in a phase now where the alliance almost seems to be at stake. The reason it's important to go back may be not to do a complete history lesson, but to think about what the calculation was that the U.S. made at the time, when we decided, "Okay, we're going to enter this pact to defend South Korea. We're going to be partners in this."

Katrin Katz: That was also about costs. If we're going to put this into President Trump's terms of costs, it was a different type of cost. It was the realization, after we removed our troops in 1949, then had to go back at the start of the Korean War for very important reasons, and we dealt with costs of not being present. This is something, I think, that's critical to our alliance structure globally, that we had cost-benefit calculations after the last major world war, and how to prevent the next one. In some ways, I think it's the cost of peace and prosperity to forget those kinds of dimensions of our calculations many decades ago.

Katrin Katz: Now, when we're thinking about costs, we're thinking much more short-term. The way the president's talking about costs is in terms of dollar signs, in terms of our presence there right now. Insofar as it's hard to prove non-events, it's hard to prove the value of this alliance in terms of what hasn't happened. It's really hard to have that conversation in this very compact space of time in our news cycle, where we're talking about the last hour, what's on the Twitter feed in the last seconds, even, that this is why we're still there, and that there might be different types of costs that we have to deal with in different ways. Not just dollar signs, but through our own troops, and the casualties, and the warfare. What warfare brings is something we've been fortunate to not have experience in the last 65 years.

Brian Hanson: Yeah. The alliance has created stability, created effective deterrence. Karl, let me bring you into this. When did North Korea start pursuing a nuclear program, nuclear weapons programs? Why do we understand that they've done this?

Karl Friedhoff: It comes in the '90s. The reason they're going to say that they did this is that they see a hostile region all around them, essentially. For quite some time, they were the leading economic power on the Korean Peninsula. After the Korean War, they industrialized much faster. They were seeing themselves as more powerful. Suddenly, South Korea-

Brian Hanson: Which is a surprise for most listeners, right?

Karl Friedhoff: Right.

Brian Hanson: Who see South Korea as the advanced, industrialized country, and North Korea as rather backward.

Karl Friedhoff: Right. Eventually, South Korea catches up, surpasses them, and now they are surrounded by what they see as hostile powers. The U.S. has forces in South Korea. It has forces in Japan. China, although being this blood alliance, is probably not going to be that much help in the future. Now they're seeing this and they're going to start developing their weapons because they see that, probably rightly, as the ultimate deterrent. They have long viewed the United States as trying to militarily coerce them, to shape their behavior, and they do not want to go through that anymore, especially with other U.S. examples of invasions and regime change.

Karl Friedhoff: So, it begins in the '90s, and I think one of the most interesting cases is how they withdrew from the NPT.

Brian Hanson: Which is the Nonproliferation Treaty.

Karl Friedhoff: The Nonproliferation Treaty.

Brian Hanson: In which countries agreed to not weaponize, not create nuclear weapons.

Karl Friedhoff: Right. They're a member of that, and then they take steps to withdraw from the NPT. They take a certain number of days, and then they put it on pause. The rest of the international community thinks, "Well, now they're going to actually withdraw. We'll have to go back and start all over," but that's not how North Korea sees it. Essentially, when they decide they're going to withdraw, within a week it's done after that. Suddenly they're out, and then they go for a nuclear breakout after that. It's all about deterrence, it's all about power, and they want to see themselves on the international stage sitting with the U.S., which they have now apparently done.

Karl Friedhoff: I want to tie that back into the agreement that was just reached in Singapore. This is something I think is important because point one in the agreement says that they're essentially going to start new diplomatic relations, or a new type of relationship. Again, we talked about this ability to spin this agreement in both ways. The U.S. might interpret that as we're going to start a more close diplomatic relationship, but I'm wondering if North Korea is actually going to interpret it as we're now equal. This new relationship is we are now both nuclear powers sitting at the same table. That's how they're going to proceed with negotiations moving forward.

Brian Hanson: We've got this, since the '90s, North Korea has been pursuing nuclear weapons. One of our Facebook listeners, [Jose Vidal Zobaran 00:10:04], asks a question that a lot of people have been asking. Which is, how is this agreement, how is what came out of this summit, this communique, different from what's happened in the past? Some people say, "These words have all been used before." Is there something really different about what just happened?

Katrin Katz: I've been thinking the last 48 hours or so about differences in three buckets. One is substantively. If we look at the mid-'90s and the mid-2000s agreement, we saw a progression. Despite the fact these are two different administrations, Democrat and then Republican, I think there was a learning process that went on. We saw between the two agreements more, that we got more out of the second agreement. I think part of that was due to learning, and part of it was their needs. North Korea had actually advanced further by 2005.

Katrin Katz: I think problematically, at least for round one, this agreement, this joint statement that came out of the summit meeting this week was not building substantively on that, was more vague than commitments we've had in the past. Substantively, it doesn't look so far like we have continued that process of progress in terms of what written commitments we get out of North Korea.

Katrin Katz: The second major difference, on process. President Trump turned the process on its head by front-loading a summit. He also front-loaded a concession, the concession in terms of suspending or halting the military exercise. That's different from in the past. I think we need to wait and see whether that was more effective or not. I think time will tell. I think humbly, I served in an administration that did negotiate the agreement that got more written but didn't actually succeed in denuclearizing North Korea. We have to be open to different processes, with the caveat that we want something more than vague statements.

Katrin Katz: Third, and really important, stakes. I think that normally we do have high stakes in these negotiations, but generally the U.S., there's not so much the concern. I'm saying concern in my own perspective, but concern that the U.S. is going to put concessions on the table that irreversibly and detrimentally affect its strategic presence in the region, front-loading those types of concessions. To do that before an irreversible type of concession, an irreversible, concrete concession on the North Korean side, is problematic. It puts us in a worse position. It gives us less leverage, and if it's indeed something like troop reductions, it's hard to undo that. The stakes are higher here because of this uncertainty around what the U.S. is willing to offer.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. Let me jump in and pull out one of those things to start with, which is this issue of military exercises in the region and with South Korea. One of the things that has been criticized in the negotiation, or in what happened in the summit, was that Trump said, and there's some ambiguity about what this means, but that there won't be war games. There are annual exercises, military exercises with South Korea. I want to go to this point about how we work with the allies, because apparently this announcement was a surprise to the South Koreans, and there's an exercise coming up in August, in the very near term. Karl, how significant is this? Is this just a blip that people are making a lot of noise over, or is this actually important for understanding the trajectory of the U.S.'s role in the region and relationship with its allies?

Karl Friedhoff: It's not a blip. The way that it was done, it was packaging these military exercises all as one giant thing, but if you actually break it down, there are three distinct elements to it. The first element is just having soldiers going out in the field to train. There are units there. They're relatively small, and they do all the things you would expect soldiers training to do.

Karl Friedhoff: The other part of it is a command post exercise, where you get a lot of leaders within the military. They go in basically to a bunker for two weeks. They run all these simulations. Those two things are not really linked up together. You don't have the people in the command post saying, "We need our soldiers to go here, here, here, and here," and then the people on the field do it. It's all computer simulations and how they're going to react.

Karl Friedhoff: The last part is the show of force. We fly in B-52s. We fly in strategic assets. Maybe submarines are involved. All of those things can be separated out, but the president didn't do that. He lumped them all together, saying we're not going to essentially do any of them. He could have gotten rid of just the show of force, and that may have satisfied North Korea, because they get upset with the B-52s and the strategic assets that become involved.

Karl Friedhoff: The reason I say that this is also going to be important for how South Korea views this is not only did they not know, people within the conservative establishment of South Korea, who are generally very supportive of the U.S. alliance, are incredibly unhappy that this has happened. This is somewhat ... I'll take the non-academic route here and quote something from Facebook, not for attribution, of course, but I saw a conversation between two of the leading conservatives in South Korea on Facebook where someone had said, "This was a total giveaway. We weren't aware of this, and this should never have been done." A reply to him was from a former national security advisor in South Korea, and basically making the point that this is unacceptable, and this is no way to treat an ally. There's a lot of anger towards the United States.

Karl Friedhoff: What I see happening is the progressive left, the far left and the moderate left-

Brian Hanson: In Korea.

Karl Friedhoff: In Korea.

Brian Hanson: South Korea.

Karl Friedhoff: Has long wanted the U.S. soldiers to eventually leave. That's not because they don't like the U.S. It's because they want greater autonomy.

Brian Hanson: This is the 28,500 or so U.S. troops that are stationed in South Korea.

Karl Friedhoff: Right. On the conservative right, on the far right, they want to pursue nuclear weapons. They are now saying that the alliance with the United States prevents South Korea from taking full steps to defend itself. They're starting to look at, "Well, maybe we should rethink this alliance thing." The core group that's going to be the swing group is the moderate conservatives. They do not like the progressive left president. They do not necessarily like engaging with North Korea, although they will support it if tensions get too high. They have long been supporters of the U.S., and now they're starting to ask the same question. "Is this something that we need to do, this continued alliance with the United States, if we're going to be treated like this?" It's created this unholy alliance, things that we never would have thought could have come together, and now they're all starting to coalesce around, "We need to rethink the U.S. alliance because of the way the United States is treating us."

Brian Hanson: Some folks might say, "That's all fine and good, but they need the United States." They may be mad, and they may be expressing dissatisfaction in the moment, but at the end of the day, they're just going to come back in line because they have no choice. Is that how this is likely to play out? You seem to be saying there's potentially a new dynamic here.

Karl Friedhoff: One of the things that's underappreciated is anytime you have a progressive president, if you go back to [Roo Moo-hyun 00:17:23] as well, there was a saying that he was better in deed than he was in word. Roh Moo-hyun was far progressive left. He would often stoke anti-Americanism, say these bad things. "We need to get them out." But, he did a lot of good for the Korean military, a lot of spending on the navy, and really started to modernize.

Karl Friedhoff: We're seeing the same thing happen under President Moon. I think there was a story out just a few days ago that he's really taking steps to increase spending on the military, to modernize in a lot of ways. Eventually, I think that they are in a position now with their forces that they'll be able to eventually take over OPCON, the operational control of their own troops during wartime, and to eventually be able to defend themselves and take the steps to do that. I don't think this is a case of South Korea eventually, if the U.S. troops do leave, saying, "Yeah, we need the U.S. back," unless there is a war, in which case the U.S. would be there anyway.

Brian Hanson: I want to shift focus to other major ally in the region, Japan. What has the public response from the Japanese government been to this summit? Do we have a sense of, are there other things beyond the public response that are going on?

Katrin Katz: I think Prime Minister Abe's in a really tough spot. It doesn't serve him well to be critical of President Trump. In some ways, he is in the most isolated position at this moment, so he needs to have a solid relationship with the United States. They remain very concerned about three things in particular in this process. One is the short and intermediate-range missiles. They don't want that to be-

Brian Hanson: North Korean missiles that can hit Japan.

Katrin Katz: North Korean missiles that could hit them, right, exactly. As we get to the details of this agreement, they're hoping that it doesn't just deal with ICBMs, it doesn't leave ... This is the question that-

Brian Hanson: The long-range missiles that could hit the U.S. The U.S. negotiates, "Let's get rid of those, but not worry about the weapons that could be used against Japan."

Katrin Katz: This is a similar question, though, and a dynamic to the South Korean. "Okay, what might the U.S. do to us?" How this is connected to even the military exercises announcement, if they're willing to do that to the South Korean ally, what might he be willing to do in the missile agreement?

Katrin Katz: Abductees is the other big issue that we've heard a lot about.

Brian Hanson: Japanese citizens who were-

Katrin Katz: Japanese abductees, yes, abducted in the '70s and '80s. It's a very important domestic political issue in Japan. It has been for a long time. Prime Minister Abe is very invested in this issue. Not only him, but he remains very invested in this issue. Apparently, President Trump did say something, or said he said something, or committed to say something about that.

Karl Friedhoff: He said that he committed to say something about it, but it's unclear if he actually brought it up.

Katrin Katz: Right. That would be good for Japan, but the problem is if he does that and he leaves them high and dry on the missiles. We're in this murky situation in terms of what does this mean for the alliance longer-term.

Katrin Katz: I think troop levels themselves have vacillated over time. The U.S. has had reductions, and it can create upsets on either side. In a lot of ways, as Karl mentioned, it doesn't necessarily track with progressive and conservative governments. I think both sides in the South Korean political spectrum have an appreciation for ... They might long-term see different ideal outcomes that they might be aiming for, but in the short term, I think there's bipartisan and a cross-party understanding of the need for the U.S. to maintain deterrence.

Katrin Katz: The delay of OPCON over many years, operational control of forces, has been a sign of that. Even under Roh Moo-hyun's presidency, there was concern about doing that too soon, when there's a realization of both nonconventional but conventional force balance on the peninsula.

Karl Friedhoff: I want to make one point. Two points, actually. The first point on troop reductions. Katrin's right that there have been these reductions over time. In the 1950s, 1955-ish, there were about 75,000. Rolling that forward, there have been four or five distinct reductions of about 5,000 or more. Generally, the shortest period was 13 years, and I think the longest period between them was about 20 years. Since the last reduction, we're right at the 13th year, so we are entering this time where it may make sense for the United States. I would see a concession down the road to pull out 5,000. As long as the military thinks it can maintain readiness, is going from 28,000 to 23,000 really going to make a difference in terms of the tripwire, things like that? Maybe that's something for the U.S. to consider.

Karl Friedhoff: On the other point about Japan, I feel kind of sorry for Prime Minister Abe in a lot of ways. He's really gone out of his way to be friends with President Trump. The first person to really go out and meet him. They've been golfing a lot. They've really tried to make this work, and for a long time, in South Korea there was a worry that they were being left behind. What came to be clear was the fact that Prime Minister Abe had nothing to offer. When you're dealing with a president who is only thinking about what he can gain out of things, South Korea was quickly elevated because it showed the president that they can deliver Kim Jong-un. They can deliver this stage for the president to be the negotiator and statesman that he thinks himself to be. Prime Minister Abe hasn't really had anything to give on that sense.

Karl Friedhoff: Now we see Japan, steel tariffs, and now they're looking at tariffs on cars, which is an even bigger deal. It's unclear to me how Japan is going to respond or what they can do to start to get Trump back to representing their views within the summitry, talking about things like abductees. Because right now, they are being left behind.

Katrin Katz: Yeah. I just want to go off of what Karl is saying. I think those are really, really good points, but ... not but, and another way of thinking about ... I totally agree. I think Prime Minister Abe feels like in President Trump's more cost-measurement mode, he has nothing to offer, but this gets back to this invisible value that I'm talking about. This is my real concern, is that we're calculating these costs, and we might lose that invisible value, and then we'll be in a really costly place.

Karl Friedhoff: How do we explain that invisible value to a president who deals with real estate and buildings?

Katrin Katz: We need to make a movie.

Brian Hanson: I want to get to another Facebook question. [Enrico Gloriaz 00:24:03] says, "Can we expect other countries such as China to use this agreement as a justification to ease back on sanctions on North Korea, whether formally lifting them or just no longer abiding by them?" One of the big points the Trump administration was talking about, maximum pressure and how important it is. Is that going to continue in this new context, now that there's been a summit meeting?

Karl Friedhoff: Maximum pressure, for all intents and purposes, I think is dead. This question about are other countries going to use this statement to start to relax sanctions, we've already seen that happen in some ways. Malaysia has already said that it's going to reopen its embassy in Pyongyang. Of course, that embassy was closed following the murder of Kim Jong-un's half-brother in the Malaysian airport with a nerve agent. There was a lot of acrimony. They closed their embassy, and now immediately, they're ready to reopen. So we've already seen some countries start to take that tack.

Katrin Katz: Yeah, I agree. I think it's troubling in some ways to hear the fallback plan remain maximum pressure. Maximum pressure, in my view, had two elements. It had the economic sanctions campaign. I think the misconception right now, when I hear President Trump talking about going back to that, is forgetting that the degree to which sanctions are effective is determined by those countries with the most economic leverage going along with them. It's not just a U.S. decision. It's an internal decision. The effectiveness of the maximum pressure campaign, I think the Trump administration deserves a lot of credit for. The problem, though, is that the other backup plan to me, the other element of maximum pressure, was a military strike mode. There's really nothing in between that I've heard, unless I'm missing something. I hope to be.

Karl Friedhoff: I don't think you're missing anything.

Katrin Katz: There's two extremes of the policy. Not two extremes, two elements, the sanctions campaign and the talk of military strikes. Arguably, that uncertainty around strikes, some analysts believe, played a part. The unpredictability, uncertainty around it played a part in bringing Kim Jong-un to this charm offensive phase. I think there are a lot of different views on that, but I think personally it had something to do with it.

Katrin Katz: The problem with going back, you want to maintain an ability to walk from these talks, because if you want it too much, you start giving things away that you shouldn't. The thing that concerns me now is what's plan B. How do we maintain the ability to walk? What is the backup plan? If it's maximum pressure and we can no longer put the pressure on, we'll maybe perhaps quickly go back to strike mode. That's a loss, in my view, for everybody. This is the invisible value that's upheld peace and prosperity. We haven't seen what might come. We don't want to see that. In my view, that's not a backup plan. That's a disaster.

Katrin Katz: What I've been thinking about in some of the writing I've been doing with coauthor [Dr. Cha 00:27:08] is a broader strategy, something in between military strikes and nothing. It's just basically around-

Karl Friedhoff: What would that be?

Katrin Katz: A containment strategy. That's not a popular word, because it sounds defeatist.

Karl Friedhoff: Although it did win the Cold War for the United States.

Katrin Katz: Sure. The idea is, to be in a containment mode, you don't need to give up on your long-term goals. I don't think that's a good idea, but you need to be able to manage the threat. You need to be not so desperate to do it by one track, by engagement. That involves things like a ramped-up counter-proliferation strategy, which also includes ramped-up regional cooperation that are not doing yet, but we could go to that mode.

Katrin Katz: One thing that has come to mind for me, is this a good way to harness John Bolton's expertise? Because this is an area that he actually has put together the Proliferation Security Initiative during the Bush years, which is in my view highly effective. It's not an organization, a formal thing, but it's an initiative, and it's been quite effective. So ramp that up in the region, would be one idea.

Katrin Katz: Another is just to, and this is the big concern, have the ability to coordinate with our allies and to ramp up the trilateral cooperation in between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. That seems more and more distant as we move along in the dynamics here, but the reason that's important is that we need to think of a way for North Korea's life with nuclear weapons to be harder, not easier. Without the alliance, and without the exercises, without the readiness, and without the strong trilateral bond, why give up weapons? Not only does it decrease leverage in the near term, it's just kind of like, "Well, life's pretty good with these weapons. What are you going to do, hit me? You're not ready anymore." You could look at it in a short-term leverage way, but that's the backup plan between sanctions and strikes.

Brian Hanson: Let me jump in on the country that we've talked about that's come a little bit into this discussion, but take a minute, China, the rising power in Asia. Some people have pointed out that basically the deal freezing the weapons program and declaring that you're going to roll it back for North Korea in exchange for freezing military exercises is a formulation that China has put forward. One of the places that we've gone in this discussion is some of the instability that the U.S. actions have created for our relationships with our allies, South Korea and Japan in particular. What do you see as China's strategy and set of goals in this context of these nuclear weapons talks?

Katrin Katz: Talking about China's mix of interests is not so straightforward, because some of those overlap with U.S. interests. We don't call China the type of adversary that we call North Korea. We're not in this zero-sum situation. China also, as is evident in its leadership, its host mode of the six-party talks, also sees the nuclear weapons as destabilizing and therefore not good for China's interests. In that sense, we align. The U.S. aligns with China. The idea is to take that overlapping interest, and to grow and to harness that.

Katrin Katz: The problem is China's overarching top interest is stability, maintaining regional stability and maintaining its regional position, and building on the regional position vis-a-vis the U.S. Given the choice between denuclearizing and other things, I think the trade-offs would not be the same as the U.S. calculations. We might put it at the top of our list. They might put denuclearization as second or third.

Katrin Katz: I think the particularly troubling thing here is some of the concessions that President Trump has already offered in the end of military exercises that he could offer, in terms of the troop reductions, bringing up the nuclear umbrella, really play to China's hand in terms of increasing its regional clout vis-a-vis the U.S. It's been a long-term goal.

Karl Friedhoff: Right. When a lot of this began, North Korea began its charm offensive and decided it was going to start to engage, the Chinese were largely cut out of it. No one's really clamoring for China to be involved in any way whatsoever. At first, I was wondering if they were going to take the position are just be bypassed. North Korea was happy to not deal with them. The U.S. was happy to cut them out. South Korea was happy to cut them out.

Karl Friedhoff: Now I'm starting to turn on my thinking and look at what is China saying in response. The reality is, China is not saying very much. It's meeting with Kim Jong-un. I think they've done that twice, but the fact that they're not clamoring for more of a role is somehow unsettling to me. Because normally we'd see them out there saying, "We're the regional leader. We need to be involved." Instead, they're just laying back. That is making me think that they're quite happy with what's going on, and they have full confidence in North Korea that they're not going to give up the house and denuclearize right off of the bat. They're going to try to play this out, and by the way, they have a direct line between Xi and Kim that is much more reliable than anything that we have. There is something going on there. How China is going to respond to this is going to be important to watch, and their non-response I think is the most interesting.

Brian Hanson: As we wrap up our conversation, there's been a lot of talk about what this summit means, what this process is. There's some lines of conventional wisdom starting to form. As you look at this discussion, what do you each think are important points that aren't getting the emphasis that they deserve, or being over-emphasized and misleading our understanding of this process?

Karl Friedhoff: I have a little bit of a pet peeve that's been brought up throughout this process, especially in the narratives that are out there. This is a debate between legitimization and normalization. There's been a lot of commentary about this meeting has legitimized Kim Jong-un. I don't quite see it that way. This is a country that is represented at the United Nations. It has nuclear weapons. It has a million-plus army. It has borders that are stable and secure, and so all the hallmarks of being a state. I haven't heard anyone suggest that he is not the legitimate ruler of North Korea.

Karl Friedhoff: I would prefer, instead of legitimization, to switch the talk over to normalization. We know that he is the leader of the country. He's going to remain that way. There is no viable alternative. That's one of the reasons that a military strike or a decapitation strike is so worrying. Who comes after Kim Jong-un? We have no idea. Then you get into things of score settling. I think it's more important to talk about this in terms of normalization rather than legitimization. Normalization being he runs prison camps, he does all these things and creates instability, and now we're saying, "That is all okay." Normalization instead of legitimization.

Katrin Katz: I guess some are framing the discussion in these ways, but I'd like to see more of a particular thing, which is returning to first principles in the region. I think we are forced to pay attention to tweets. It's important what's coming out of the president's mouth, whether it's in social media mood or whether he is doing it through more formal channels.

Katrin Katz: That can feel like you're on a bit of a hamster wheel and not being able to keep up with this breathless pace of news. What helps to interpret whether each tweet matters and why, and how to interpret that in a broader sense, I think it's important to get back to first principles. Why are we in the region? What are we doing there? How do we define costs and benefits? This should be a public conversation within the U.S., an open-ended conversation to a new strategy for the region.

Katrin Katz: I think we have a bit of a humility after this last election. We haven't necessarily been getting everything right with the liberal international order, so some change might be in play, but I haven't really seen that conversation about first principles play out. Because that's really what's at stake here. It's questions like, what are we aiming for? What do we value in the region? Is it still the alliances? We need to be linking those implications at every step of the way to all these smaller steps. Both short term and long term really matter.

Katrin Katz: If the answer is, "We don't, and we want to retreat," if this is what the U.S. public decides through our electoral process or whatever, we want to retreat, and we want to enter into a new phase, the real question for me is then, how do you think you're going to get to denuclearization? Because all of the tools for leverage, and stability, and things that I can think of are all tied into the present order. If there is a disconnect, that might open up another useful conversation, and maybe an awareness of the value of some things that we aren't really thinking about right now. That's what I would hope, a reorienting, a broader picture conversation, which is really hard with all the stuff going on. That would be my hope.

Brian Hanson: Katrin, Karl, thanks so much for being here and advancing our conversation as we think about these issues. Clearly, this is a topic, an area of the world that will be evolving in important ways, both the process in North Korea as well as the broader set of relationships in the region. We look forward to talking to you again about how things are unfolding. Thanks, both, for being here.

Katrin Katz: Thank you.

Karl Friedhoff: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: I'd also like to thank all of you who submitted questions through our Facebook group. That includes Jose Vidal Zobaran, [Aaron Masilansky 00:36:59], Jake [Ectall 00:37:00], Enrico Gloria, Dan [Sopper 00:37:03], [Evan Ishaman 00:37:04], and Christina Irene Collins. Please keep the questions coming.

Brian Hanson: Thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them, and are not the institutional positions of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you liked 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. If you think you know someone who would enjoy this episode, please tap the share button and send it to them, as well. If you have questions about anything you heard today, or if you want to know about upcoming episodes in advance, and submit questions for upcoming guests, please join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs.

Brian Hanson: This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is [Andy Zernecki 00:37:52]. 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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