- Interview by
- Daniel Falcone
One day President Donald Trump threatens to nuke North Korea and appoints the US’s preeminent foreign policy hawk, John Bolton, to be national security advisor. Not long after, Trump flatters Kim Jong-un and signals his desire to negotiate with the North Korean leader.
Trump’s contradictory messages in recent months have introduced an additional element of unpredictability into the US’s relationship with the Koreas, enormously complicating efforts at achieving peace on the peninsula. Even for experts like John Feffer, it’s a “truly disorienting experience” that makes North Korea-US relations “an uneasy issue to track.”
So where do things stand, just days away from the scheduled summit in Singapore between the US and North Korea?
In the following interview, conducted by activist and educator Daniel Falcone, Feffer — director of Foreign Policy in Focus and the author of North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis — sketches out the events of the last few months and explains how Trump’s volatile personality is shaping the negotiations.
The last time you and I discussed North Korea, it was before the arrival of John Bolton. You described US foreign policy in regards to North Korea as a very disorienting process with extreme fluctuations. What has changed with US policy since?
The changes that took place between the two Koreas as a result of Kim Jong-un reaching out in January (the New Year’s address to South Korea) and the two countries participating together in the Olympics caught the United States by surprise. The administration basically has been playing catch up ever since.
Prior to John Bolton joining the administration, there were basically 2.5 positions in the Trump administration. The first was the hardline position of pushing North Korea as much as possible out of the hope that the regime would ultimately collapse as a result. The other position was to continue to push North Korea hard, not to cause the regime to collapse but to bring it to the negotiating table. That’s been the more conventional foreign policy view in Washington for some time. I say there’s 2.5 positions because Trump himself had employed a strategy of his own — be as belligerent as possible, while also holding out the possibility that he could negotiate some kind of a solution.
There’s also the dynamic of inter-Korean cooperation moving forward independent of the United States — even though both Koreas, frankly, are doing their best to placate Donald Trump, assuring him that he and the United States are important players in this process. Essentially, the process is going far beyond anything anybody in the administration imagined — to the extent that you would have a South Korean delegation come to the United States to brief Trump on what had happened at the inter-Korean summit and present him with an offer from Kim Jong-un to have a one-on-one summit.
I’d argue that North Korea very carefully calculated to appeal to Trump’s sense of importance and vanity and his negotiating skills and impulsiveness. Trump basically decided he’d go forward with the one-on-one summit without very much consultation with any of his advisors. This was the situation on the eve of Bolton joining the White House as national security advisor and the replacement of Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo from the CIA, which was a ratcheting up of US strategy.
How has Bolton’s appearance changed the dynamics around negotiations?
A few things should be noted here. First, Bolton didn’t have to go through a congressional confirmation hearing, so he didn’t actually have to present any of his views to anybody. He simply appeared in the White House as perhaps the most important adviser to Trump. Number two, he hasn’t had to waste his time, from his point of view, with any of the largely ceremonial tasks that the secretary of state performs — traveling around to various countries and dealing with things Bolton isn’t interested in.
And third, he has privileged access to the president since he’s not based in Foggy Bottom [the State Department] but in the White House. John Bolton is very crafty, very strategic, and very smart. He’s a lawyer, and he’s been involved in arms control negotiations. He also is well known for his ability to be a sycophant to those above him and to be an absolute bastard to those below him. He knows that he has to carefully manage his superior, Donald Trump. He can’t grandstand. He can’t openly contradict him. He has to work quietly behind the scenes and, like in a Shakespearean drama, pour the poison, very carefully, into Trump’s ear.
Which is what he has done.
He basically undermined Trump’s notion that the North Koreans could be trusted to have a summit, much less negotiate real denuclearization. And then publicly, he sent subtle signals — but not subtle to North Koreans or to people who follow these issues — that this summit is a waste of time: first, by downplaying expectations, and second, by saying that the agenda at the summit is going to be more than just denuclearization, that it will also involve missiles and abductions of South Koreans and Japanese. As a former arms control negotiator, he knows that adding those kinds of elements to the agenda will make it extremely difficult to come up with any kind of agreement.
Finally, he raised the specter of the Libyan model. Everybody knows what the end game was there — the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in a rather ignominious fashion. The North Koreans picked up on that very quickly, and it’s certainly not the scenario they want.
All of this leads to Donald Trump’s recent decision to cancel the summit. He sends them a letter on May 24 to that effect with a veiled threat that he has more nukes than they do, and then backtracks after receiving a very nice letter from the North Koreans about how they’re still open to negotiations. And of course the North Koreans were in the process of destroying their nuclear test site just as Donald Trump was issuing his cancellation. So Trump thinks, oh well, maybe they are serious and we can do what I wanted to do in the first place despite my advisers’ recommendations.
Trump’s May 24 letter has a long first paragraph that’s very simplistic and vague. The second paragraph appears to be feigning outrage over a comment made about Vice President Pence. The third paragraph looks very unofficial. Was the White House anticipating a cancellation and then sent this letter preemptively in your view? How did you react when you read the letter?
I do think that that was the major concern coming from Trump himself: the idea that somehow he would be made a fool of. The first year and a half of his presidency has been all about what a fool he is. He’s been made a fool of by several investigations, he’s been made a fool of by his own pronouncements, he’s been made a fool of by foreign leaders, by the intellectual class, by world public opinion, etc.
This was supposed to be his grand gesture to rescue his reputation and his presidency, at least when it came to foreign policy. And yet he was at risk of again having egg on his face. That explains the tone of the letter. The letter is also very careful to be almost obsequious to Kim Jong-un and keep open the possibility of meeting in the future. This is Donald Trump at his most obvious, where he’s both threatening and obsequious to the same person.
He’s getting differing advice from people around him. The Washington foreign policy community reacted with a great deal of skepticism to the notion that this summit was a good idea or that it would produce any kind of an agreement. The Democratic Party should have been more circumspect in its approach, but it has largely been scornful of Trump for this. Korea watchers thought this was, generally speaking, a lousy idea.
Trump doesn’t necessarily have a lot of intellectual support, or foreign policy support for this particular trajectory — although no doubt there are people who continue to, like the courtiers of yesteryear, say that the president is incredibly wise and deserves a Nobel Prize and that whatever he does, whatever decision he makes, is the right decision. I’m sure he’s getting two streams of advice on this: a stream that is encouraging to him because they are lickspittle advisers and then those that are carefully critical, that represent more mainstream skepticism about North Korea in general.
Does Trump’s letter show how ill prepared the US was for long negotiations? In other words, were they looking for a way out of the summit?
Certainly they are ill prepared for this. That’s kind of an objective reading of the administration at this point. The administration’s North Korea point person, Joseph Yun, has dropped out. You don’t have much Korea experience on the National Security Council.
That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t go ahead with the summit and perhaps get some kind of agreement out of it. But it does mean that they would be going up against negotiators who have repeatedly engaged with both the US and South Korean interlocutors in the past on these complex issues. So almost by definition, even if the administration were to finally appoint people to the positions that are currently vacant, even in the best situation, the US would be at a disadvantage because our democracy rotates elites on a semi-regular basis and North Korea doesn’t rotate its elites like that. They have negotiators with tremendous amounts of experience.
But I don’t think the summit was canceled because the US was understaffed or ill prepared. I think Trump himself has an outsized belief in his own capabilities. He doesn’t really think that he needs any advisers, experts or otherwise. In fact, he believes that the reason the US has failed in the past is precisely because we depended on this cult of experts who have done nothing to get us out of this nuclear situation with North Korea.
You’ve described how US presidents, once on the job, come to this realization that China does not hold the key to unlocking the dilemma with North Korea. Does China have a stake in this? And do you think they have an interest in slowing down North Korean talks with the US?
I do not. I’m not exactly sure what Trump was referring to when he said he thought Kim Jong-un had changed his mind after a second meeting with [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping, other than a desire to deflect responsibility away from the Trump administration itself for the sudden turn in relations.
All indications are that China absolutely wanted the summit to go forward. It wants better relations between the United States and North Korea. It is very much in favor of denuclearization, in general, for North Korea, and for some kind of strategy for economic development in the region — not just its own northeast region, but in Northeast Asia more generally. China wants at least some degree of stability and security in the region.
How about Iran and the recent US exit from the nuclear deal framework? How does North Korea factor in with what Trump and Bolton are up to with regards to Iran?
Trump just wanted to ditch the Iran agreement. Any kind of impact such a decision would have on any other part of the world was superseded by their desire to destroy this agreement.
They might say this sends a strong signal to North Korea. They might say that the kind of nuclear agreement we want with North Korea is certainly not like the one we had with Iran, but instead a much more comprehensive, ironclad one. And that might send that signal to North Korea. But it also might tell North Korea that the Trump administration, and perhaps the United States more generally, is not to be trusted if it signs an agreement in one administration and cancels it in another.
Also, the Trump administration might say this demonstrates that we are willing to take a hardline position in negotiating and if that pisses some people off or seems to risk an escalation in tensions, so be it. But I don’t really think North Korea looks at the situation that way. In part North Korea thinks of itself as unique, so if it’s going to have a relationship with the United States, it’s going to be different from Iran for a variety of reasons. Second, North Korea is focused almost exclusively on Trump himself rather than the entourage around him, and I think they believe that they can make a deal with him, and not with the Washington consensus.
So from that point of view, the Iran agreement doesn’t really matter because Trump had never been involved in the negotiating of it. They also might be calculating that this is a long-term process, and whatever they can get started under Trump can establish a dynamic that would be difficult for future administrations to break away from.
What do you think will happen on June 12?
I’m not sure the summit’s going to take place on June 12. There’s a good possibility that it will be postponed. If you look at it from simply an electoral point of view, June 12 is not the best time for Donald Trump to orchestrate a great diplomatic coup. It would be much better to do it closer to the midterm elections. Even though foreign policy doesn’t usually influence US elections all that much — and midterm elections even less — something grand on the international stage could nevertheless be useful for the Republican Party going into the elections.