March 14, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Let's Talk About North Korea

“Me.” That was President Trump’s one-word answer when asked what he thought accounted for the announcement that Kim Jong-un was willing to talk about denuclearization. He had a point. Since coming to office, Trump has led a global effort to put maximum pressure on North Korea, including three unanimous UN Security Council resolutions to tighten sanctions. His fiery rhetoric also put the North’s leaders on notice that war was a real possibility.

"Me" would probably also be Kim Jong-un's answer if asked what he thought accounted for a sitting US president agreeing to talk to him without prerequisites. He, too, would have a point. Defying international pressure, Kim has nurtured his nation's nuclear capability to the point where he feels comfortable approaching the United States as an equal in head to head of state talks. His own fiery rhetoric put America on notice that it was in North Korea's firing range.

Kim Jong-un has now created an opening for diplomacy, beginning with the Olympics and continuing with this opportunity for the two leaders to meet. Diplomacy is surely the preferred option for resolving the nuclear crisis, not least because there is no military option that would not cause damage on a totally unacceptable scale. But as diplomacy gets underway, it is important to note how unusual this entire process has been.

First, the offer to meet was communicated by South Korean officials who met with Kim in Pyongyang. As far as is known, none of the promises made about halting nuclear tests during the talks or committing to talk about denuclearization have actually been communicated by the North Koreans directly.

Second, President Trump jumped at this unconfirmed second-hand invitation without even consulting any advisers. Further, rather than making this announcement directly, Trump had the South Koreans do it. From the White House driveway no less.

Last but not least, this "yes" was announced with none of the meeting details having been worked out. The timing, duration, and place are all still up in the air. Nor is it clear that the administration has figured out what it is willing to offer Kim in return for North Korea taking steps to denuclearize. All of this is painstaking strategic work that takes time to get right.

And make no mistake, getting it wrong entails very real risks.

One is that a breakdown in the talks will make it that much more difficult to return to the diplomatic path — leaving only confrontation as an option. Another is that the two leaders strike a deal that doesn't go far enough — a frequent criticism of the nuclear deal President Obama struck with Iran and an international coalition of negotiators. But of course, without a seat at the table, international stakeholders like China and America’s allies risk the possibility that Trump will accept a deal that they could find objectionable.

While the slap-dash nature of the process and the risks involved in taking such a meeting may make one feel uneasy, the summit nevertheless offers the possibility of something truly historic. Kim Jong-un could be playing Lucy with the nuclear football, or we could be witnessing a breakthrough in the making. All we know for now is that we are at the very beginning of a very unusual process.

With Snap ‘Yes’ in Oval Office, Trump Gambles on North Korea

Peter Baker and Choe Sang-Hun / The New York Times

Olympic overtures, a boozy dinner in Pyongyang, an Oval Office summoning, and a crepuscular announcement on the White House driveway: The story of how President Trump agreed to meet face-to-face with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is “a case study in international relations in the Trump era,” write Baker and Sang-Hun. Without alerting allies, adversaries, or even his own Secretary of State, Trump told a South Korean envoy he would meet with Kim Jong-un in May, and, in doing so, “…threw aside caution and dispensed with decades of convention to embark on a daring, high-wire diplomatic gambit aimed at resolving on of the world’s most intractable standoffs.”

The Peace Train Leaves the Station

Daniel Sneider / Tokyo Business Today

“Despite the American belief that they shape events, this has been a Korean affair,” writes Sneider, arguing that this latest “peace train” journey started back in July of 2017 when President Moon delivered a major address in Berlin. Moon’s speech constituted a “full-throated embrace of the ‘Sunshine’ policy of North-South engagement,” comparable to previous progressive governments. After the Olympic breakthrough and agreement to hold a third inter-Korean summit, it’s clear Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in are positioned at the head of the peace train, and the US, China, and Japan are, for the moment, along for the ride.

7 Big Things to Understand About Trump’s Talks with North Korea

Max Fisher / The New York Times

Fisher lays out seven things he’s learned covering North Korea, diplomacy, and the Trump administration in the past few years to help set the scene for Trump’s upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un. Among the lessons: Talks reduce the risk of war (up until the talks themselves), both sides may not agree on what “denuclearization” means, having a US Ambassador to South Korea would help, and personalities matter.

Inside Trump’s Trade War: How Tariff Backers Beat Free Traders

Michael C. Bender, Peter Nicholas, and Siobhan Hughes / The Wall Street Journal

Before President Trump started his trade war, tariff-backers and free-traders around him had been skirmishing for months, most notably economist Peter Navarro and economic advisor Gary Cohn. According to White House officials, Trump cultivated this contention within his own ranks, ultimately siding with Navarro and cutting Cohn out of definitive meetings on the eve of battle. And with that, the administration's loudest free-trade voice resigned. “Mr. Cohn had some success slowing Mr. Trump’s protectionist instincts, but miscalculated on his ability to sway him over time,” write the authors of this piece, going on to explain in detail how Navarro won the day.

Is Trump About to Start a Trade War?

Ruchir Sharma / The New York Times

Periods of deglobalization tend to be brought about by slow, tectonic shifts that take place over decades, not sudden events such as President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, Sharma argues. He goes on to assert that it is important to view Trump’s latest trade actions in the historical context of the Great Depression, which was caused more by countries turning inward after World War I than the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930. Likewise, the current backlash against globalization was fueled by the Great Recession of 2008, in concert with leading world economies instituting more discriminatory trade measures since 2010. “The age of deglobalization is now a worldwide phenomenon that is larger than Mr. Trump,” Sharma concludes.

The Case for Trump’s Tariffs and ‘America First’ Economies

Daniel McCarthy / The New York Times

McCarthy outlines the three goals of economic nationalism embedded in President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy: maintaining industries necessary for prevailing in large-scale war, supporting a secure middle-class, and fostering prosperity. “Free trade is a clear and simple rule, and the economic theory of which it is a part is elegant and logical. But it is only a partial truth,” McCarthy writes. Admitting that Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs may not work, he adds, “They are a first attempt at finding an alternative to a free-trade system that has built up the People’s Republic of China while hollowing out the factory towns that once made America great.”

Trump’s Warning Shot on Trade Risks Igniting a Wider Conflict

Peter S. Goodman / The New York Times

Trade frictions are constant in the global economy, Goodman writes, but a trade war is different, holding the potential to damage living standards on multiple continents. Since the end of World War II, the US and its allies have constructed a world order centered on the notion that “communities connected by commerce have a shared interest in maintaining peace.” With his administration’s decision to impose steel and aluminum tariffs, President Trump has “amplified the sense that the United States has forsaken its role as a leading defender of a global trading system anchored by clear rules of engagement.” What happens next depends on “which countries win a reprieve from the tariffs, and which opt to retaliate.”

Europe’s Strategic Choices on Brexit

Gideon Rachman / The Financial Times

While EU policymakers have criticized Britain for not making the hard choices on Brexit and trying to “have its cake and eat it,” Rachman points out that the EU is perfectly capable of creating new laws–or interpreting current ones with extreme flexibility–when it is politically necessary. After providing examples that demonstrate the EU has a history of cherry-picking the law, Rachman argues it has three options on Brexit: Stay tough, compromise, or force a crisis. The only thing that shouldn’t be an option, he concludes, is the EU pretending it has no strategic choices to make.

Mapping out China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Cheang Ming / CNBC

This interactive map takes the reader on a journey along China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a vast logistics and transport network aimed at connecting Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. “It’s all part of Beijing’s push to increase global clout–building modern infrastructure can attract more investment and trade along the route,” Ming writes. Based on recent government releases and outside reports, the interactive offers a look into both the over land “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the nautical “21st-Century Maritime Silk Road.”

Philanthropist Ertharin Cousin on Fighting Global Food Poverty

Ruth Lewis-Coste / The Financial Times

Our distinguished fellow for global food and agriculture, Ertharin Cousin, was featured as the cover story of the FT’s Philanthropy issue last week. A Chicago native, Ertharin grew up “with an understanding of service and what was required to support the community,” a value set that lead her to become the US ambassador to UN food agencies in Rome in 2009, then on to head the UN’s World Food Programme between 2012 and 2017. It has been her mission to end world hunger by focusing on improving nutrition. “All children deserve the opportunities to live life to its fullest potential. That starts with nutritious food,” Ertharin says.


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