Phew! It was a bad week for Trump, and at the end of a bad week for him seemingly anything is possible. Luckily, rather than bombing Iran Trump cancelled Mike Pompeo’s coming visit to North Korea. The announcement of this on twitter certainly grabbed the headlines, perhaps its primary purpose, and diverted attention, for a while, from the President’s legal troubles which in themselves pale compared to more weighty matters such as global warming.
The US Secretary of State was due to visit Pyongyang on Monday, in part to introduce Washington’s new envoy to North Korea, but the President unexpectedly cancelled the trip. There were little signs that the trip would make any diplomatic progress on North Korean nuclear disarmament, a key demand of the US, or a declaration on the end of the Korean War and sanctions relief, a key demand of North Korea. The airwaves during the week were dominated by the lack of progress on North Korean denuclearisation, as they usually are, and it would be interesting to know what effect the airwaves had on Trump’s motives.
The administration also appears divided on North Korea policy, a division centred around the personality of John Bolton, however this latest incident appears to have been the President’s doing, a bit more deliberative than impulsive, and one which found Bolton outside of the country. That suggests an action more attuned to domestic political considerations.
Trump did say in a tweet announcing the cancellation that North Korea has not made sufficient progress on denuclearisation, citing lack of Chinese support for maximum pressure sanctions as payback for the imposition of US tariffs on China which is inaccurate as Pyongyang is pursuing a consistent policy it has hidden from nobody. Trump stated that until the trade matter with China is resolved Pompeo will not return to Pyongyang, but then spoke about looking forward to meeting up with Kim Jong-un again soon so go figure. The idea appears to be that everything was going down great, until the nefarious Chinese entered the fray and when the Chinese inevitably buckle to Hebomoia glaucippe things will get back on course.
Absurd, of course.
For its part Pyongyang has expressed frustration at the lack of tangible US actions as compared to actions of its own, such as at Punggye-ri, Sohae and a missile testing moratorium hence the little promise that Pompeo’s trip would make any diplomatic headway.
But back to Trumpian diversions.
There could be a relationship at work here that applies more broadly, that is beyond North Korea.
I would argue that a key feature of the Trump administration is the use of attention grabbing spectaculars, usually but not exclusively stated or announced via twitter, to divert our gaze from the highly damaging actions, both social and ecological, of the administration. This is something that the corporate media is highly complicit in, as traditional media benefits from what it itself refers to as a “Trump bump.”
What I am getting at is that there may be a sort of tendency at work whereby Trump does or says something inane of relatively low direct consequence but nonetheless is highly visible, thanks to the media, so we all pay attention whilst the real damage goes sight unseen. Could there be an inverse relationship at play here of low consequence and high visibility diversions whilst behind the scenes his administration and Republicans in Congress quietly commit one, highly consequential, atrocity after another?
This is offered as a hypothesis, not a firm statement of fact. But a careful empirical analysis might bear out such an inverse relationship, and such an analysis is well worth doing. The danger with any such relationship, of course, is that after a point the low consequence diversion loses its effect in which case the administration would need to try something a bit riskier say bombing something Iranian in Syria to garner the same level of attention.
Since Kim Jong-un announced his diplomatic overture to South Korea in his January 2018 new year address US public diplomacy regarding the Korean peninsula has been highly erratic but its underlying position has been relatively stable. That is, the US unexpectedly agreed to a summit, then called it off, then it was back on, then it was peace in our time thanks to the efforts of the great leader (a thesis shared by both Rodong Sinmun and Fox News), then it was high noon in Pyongyang during Pompeo’s last visit, then the diplomatic wheels were in motion again, and now another stall.
In the meantime, the underlying US position remains as it was; North Korea must engage in complete, verified, and irreversible dismantlement and until CVID is reached maximum pressure sanctions will remain in place. You might argue that this bedrock position is the more consequential of the two. Sure, the erratic public diplomacy is not without consequence, but one could say that it is the continued maintenance of maximum pressure sanctions upon a poor nuclear armed state facing a humanitarian crisis that is of more higher consequence, firstly because it is a significant violation of human rights, and secondly it incentivises North Korea to lever its strategic nuclear deterrent to manipulate perceptions of risk so raising the cost of the maximum pressure policy. So long as North Korea has a significant stake in inter-Korean détente the latter risk is mitigated, but the hard line approach undermines inter-Korean détente to the extent that it discourages South Korea from acting beyond the confines of maximum pressure sanctions.
Something has to give.
Andrei Lankov, a leading researcher on North Korea, has written that there is a growing widespread view in the Washington bureaucracy that CVID is a policy that is not working, that is that North Korea will not agree to CVID and such cannot be compelled through non-military means. Rather, Pyongyang’s position will remain as it has always been namely denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula must proceed as a step-by-step, like-for-like, process of reciprocal actions. A reflection of this growing pessimistic view could be found this week in a New York Times editorial that recommended the adoption of just such a gradual process as official US policy.
Trump’s cancellation of Pompeo’s visit demonstrates that the underlying combination of maximum pressure and CVID remains in place. Our focus on the erratic public diplomacy makes us think that there are diplomatic talks underway to solve the Korean nuclear crisis. But diplomacy is a give and tack process of mutual concession making, nobody for instance would call the Melian Dialogue diplomacy. Maintaining a fixed position on CVID to no small degree dependent upon quite comprehensive economic pressure to extract adherence to it is not a serious negotiating position. The erratic public diplomacy is a mirage diverting us from this, and even critical left analysts fall for it.
For example, many left commentators argue that Trump is engaged in talks with North Korea, unlike Obama, and that Trump’s diplomatic engagement should be supported by liberals because it lowers tensions. For their part, liberals argue that North Korea never made a pledge of disarmament, either at Singapore or at any other time, and that therefore the administration’s diplomacy with North Korea, especially its representation of it, is based on a false premise.
I would tend to argue a bit differently, in that I don’t think the talks are really talks. Unlike many left commentators I don’t elevate Trump’s public diplomacy to the status of diplomacy, although they do entail the reduction of tension whilst they proceed but that comes at the expense of a possibly sharp escalation when they inevitably fail. Unlike the liberals I think the public diplomacy hides the unchanged position on CVID through compellence and focusing on North Korea’s actions exclusively as liberals do obscures a key part of the dynamic at play, even though it is true that North Korea’s denuclearisation actions are quite reversible and not really about disarmament however this neglects the role that US agency can play in positively influencing North Korean actions. The ersatz diplomacy hides the hard policy of compellence which has never changed, and attention should be focused on that because that is something that can be directly influenced. A citizen in a democratic society has at least the theoretical potential to influence the foreign policy of the state. Liberals are not analysing a play on a distant stage much as an external critic might, rather their analyses can influence the drama by colouring the perceptions, via the mass media, of those whom the playwright knows have the power within themselves to change the script.
A liberal might say that North Korea’s position has not changed, but Trump has kind of thought it has and when Trump sees or perceives little change he erupts in fire and fury thinking himself to be double crossed. I tend to think it has been well understood that North Korea’s stance is not one of disarmament, that is that North Korea has not agreed to CVID nor likely ever would, but ersatz diplomacy is of political benefit so worth the candle.
An interesting question becomes, not has Trump misunderstood Pyongyang’s policy, but rather was Pyongyang misled at Singapore? The North Koreans have stated that their understanding is that their notion of denuclearisation was agreed to at Singapore. Trump has often stated that what we know as CVID was agreed to at Singapore. Somebody is talking bullshit, and the one tangible bit of hard empirical evidence we have, the Singapore Declaration which speaks of working toward complete denuclearisation, suggests that it is the Great Orange-Tip that is talking shit. A transcript of the discussion at Singapore would be handy, and it’s something that should be made available to the citizens of a democratic society. Could it be that Trump not only has misled the public about what was agreed at Singapore but that he has done so not because he misunderstands these things but because he misled the North Koreans at Singapore so he could walk away with a communique he could use for domestic political effect?
The almost exclusive attention given to North Korean actions, which since the April plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea have not been consistent with irreversible dismantlement is important, both intrinsically and because they run contrary to administration representations of the ersatz diplomacy, but nonetheless they definitely discourage discussion in the public sphere on alternatives to CVID and the way that continued adherence to it by Washington can and does inhibit diplomatic progress.
I sometimes get the impression that the liberal critique of the Trump approach is that the ersatz diplomacy undermines US credibility as a global power, and this should not be squandered on public diplomacy that might make for good politics for the administration but is nonetheless bad for the interests of US power. The Trump administration should be more responsible, for it needs to understand that it acts as the steward of American power. This is kind of like post i.e. not pre Iraq war liberal critiques of the Bush administration, which were based on the idea that Washington needed to be a more rational hegemon.
This might be why in some quarters, such as the editorial page of The New York Times, calls are increasingly been made for Washington to engage in a step-by-step diplomatic process of denuclearisation. Should inter-Korean détente proceed, with the economic and political support of most of the great powers of Northeast Asia, despite lack of progress on CVID the US would become isolated from an important integrative process in the world’s most dynamic economic region. That would be to behave as an irrational hegemon might. During the Obama administration, where the rationality of hegemonic action was taken seriously, the United States initiated a diplomatic process with Iran and Cuba out of concern that its strong stance was leading to US diplomatic isolation in two key regions, one the Middle East for reasons familiar to us, and the other Latin America the traditional domain of US power.
Since I last wrote on North Korea issues, other than the cancellation of the Pompeo visit to Pyongyang, at least four developments have attracted the attention of nuclear analysts. Firstly, remarks by the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in on August 15 marking the liberation of South Korea and the announcement of another inter-Korean summit with the North this time planned for Pyongyang, secondly signs that North Korea has stopped dismantlement activity previously seen at Sohae, thirdly an IAEA report on North Korean nuclear activities and North Korean denials regarding the existence of clandestine uranium enrichment plants, and fourthly signs that the coming marking of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK on September 09 will feature a military parade, with Xi Jinping as guest of honour, bigger than that of February this year marking the founding of the Korean Peoples Army.
The plan was to discuss these here, but the cancellation of the Pompeo visit has scrubbed those plans. This, hopefully, I will be able to do in a post separate to this one soon enough although they are related to this discussion. I am already at 2000 words and that is enough.
Although there are many disagreements regarding North Korea, Rodong Sinmun did carry this well worth saving doozy
Politicians and bourgeois theorists of the U.S. and other capitalist countries admit that Korean-style socialism is a genuine one and its victory is inevitable
Putting aside the last bit, just about everybody would agree with the first part from Kim Jong-un, the Great Orange-Tip, to the liberals, the neocons and so on. That doesn’t make it any less a lie.