(Project of the Kajima Institute of International Peace)

US North Korea policy affected by personnel changes in the Trump administration

By Tsuneo Watanabe
Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation

The diplomacy and security policy of the Trump administration became more realistic in August 2017 after retired US Marine Corps general John F. Kelly, the then Secretary of Homeland Security, took office as White House Chief of Staff, at President Trump's request. Kelly succeeded in instilling some discipline in the White House, while the President became amenable to a certain extent to the advice of the administration staff. An outcome of such changes was the national security strategy document made public in December 2017. From around February 2018, however, the White House staff who had been trusted by President Trump resigned one after another, and Kelly himself lost the President's trust. Thus, the instilled discipline vanished from the White House.

As a result, cabinet members criticizing the President's policies were dismissed and President Trump has reverted back to his old style of policy-making, relying on his own intuition. His administration's policies have begun to take an unpredictable course. On June 12, a historic US-North Korea summit was held in Singapore, which is also said to be an example of the President's intuitive decision-making. Although the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a guarantee for the North Korean regime were agreed to in a joint document, because the process of the negotiation was unclear and the language of the document is ambiguous, the future actions of the signatories are still unforeseeable. This paper will outline the recent situation in which President Trump has returned to his self-centered or rather termed "self-righteous" manner of policy-making, and discuss how the current Trump administration will advance the US-North Korea talks.

The White House personnel changes that led Trump from realism to his old self

The National Security Strategy of the United States of America announced on December 18, 2017 provided a sense of relief to many realists at home and to the allies. The document incorporates the words of President Trump in each chapter, wearing an "America First" makeup, but the text is based on traditional Republican realistic thinking, confirming the US commitment toward the international order and to its allied countries.

Regarding the international order, the document reads as follows: "China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity." "These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners." 1

These expressions represent a more severe position against China and Russia than that adopted by any previous Republican administrations. They are in a sense a legitimate recognition of the present world where Russia intervened in the Ukrainian civil war and annexed Crimea, while China continues its maritime expansion in the East and the South China Seas. Such a recognition has as result provided a sense of security to Japan and to European countries.

During his presidential campaign in 2016, the candidate Trump made a series of remarks slighting allied countries. For example, he argued that US participation in the collective defense of NATO should not be unconditional and that the United States would consider the contributions of the allies, expressing dissatisfaction with the amount of Japan's host-nation support for US forces stationed in the country. With the "America First" slogan, Mr. Trump tended to put the value of the alliance --- a long-term national interest --- lower than short-term economic interests. But the document argues "we will preserve peace through strength" and expresses a traditional alliance view stating "Allies and partners magnify our power."2

The person responsible for the above national security strategy document was Dina Habib Powell, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy, who became an advisor to the President's daughter Ivanka Trump during the transition period from the presidential campaign to the establishment of the administration. She entered the Trump administration as one of a few experienced senior officials from the George W. Bush administration. She won President Trump's trust, and contributed in making his diplomacy and security policy more realistic, which tended to lack the perspective of international balance under the influence of the "America Firstism" advocated by former White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon and others. Unfortunately, she left the administration in January 2018 to join her husband and children who live in New York. The administration lost one realist who had a particularly strong influence upon the President.3

Rob Porter, White House Staff Secretary, played a pivotal role in the management of the White House. He is an ally and a Harvard University alumnus of President Trump's son-in-law, Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, enjoying President Trump's strong confidence. Supporting Kelly, Poretr was a shadow player who brought some discipline in the White House. However, due to a suspicion of alleged abuse against his two ex-wives, he was forced to resign in early February. Furthermore, Kelly made inconsistent remarks to protect Porter and lost the confidence of the media, the White House staff, and the President.4

On top of this, Hope Hicks, White House Communications Director, Ivanka's ally since her days as a model, also resigned. Hicks had served as a secretary to Trump for many years since before his election as US president. She knew well his character and was able to say directly to him what nobody else would say. In the investigation of the Russiagate allegations, she was summoned by the House Intelligence Committee and had to give testimony for eight hours. Afterward she left the White House in early March due to her involvement in the resignation scandal of Secretary Porter, with whom she had been in a relationship.5

Meanwhile, Kushner temporarily lost his top-secret security clearance in connection with the investigation of the Russiagate allegations, and the discipline in the White House instilled by Kelly seems to have been lost for a time.

In an article dated April 4 in the Wall Street Journal, Gerald F. Seib described President Trump as unleashed from traditional Republican restraints, returned to his "America First" protectionism and dogmatic foreign policy. According to Seib, the three policies announced by the administration on April 3 typically represent this: (1) the withdrawal of US military from Syria; (2) the safeguarding of the US-Mexico border by the US military, and (3) the imposition of tariffs as high as 25% on Chinese imports --- the expected tariff income will be equivalent to a total of 50 billion dollars.

Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, and White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, all of whom tried to bring President Trump nearer to the traditional Republican realistic line, departed the White House. The void left by them has been filled up by friends outside the administration and private advisors who encourage the President's intuition rather than providing a constrain. Seib thus explains the background of the above policies.6 In addition, Seib suggests that the summit meetings with DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un and Russian President Putin were decided by President Trump without consultation with advisors and cabinet members.

The US-North Korea summit --- defective yet recognized as such

On June 12, a historic US-North Korea summit meeting took place in Singapore. President Trump and Kim Jong-un, chairman of the Korean Workers' Party, signed a joint statement. According to the document, "President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." But the fact that the document fails to indicate any concrete path toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has raised criticism and doubt in the United States and abroad.

An hour-long solo press conference held by President Trump after the summit meeting added to such suspicion. For example, despite the fact that concrete denuclearization paths have not yet been agreed to, President Trump said, "We signed a very, very comprehensive document, and I believe he's going to live up to that document. We're starting that process very quickly." However President Trump did not explain the reasons for his remarks at the press conference.7

In the United States, President Trump is criticized for having uncritically used such positive words as "talented" or "a good chemistry" for the North Korean dictator who is overtly violating human rights. In addition, President Trump left the Canadian G7 Summit halfway to travel to Singapore, calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "weak" and "dishonest." The anti-Trump media vehemently criticized the President for failing to respect the values of democracy or the values of allies.8

Certainly, the joint statement is criticized for being so inadequate as to need more negotiation on the verification method of the denuclearization process, while overlooking human rights issues in North Korea. Nonetheless the summit meeting is valued as such as having helped to initiate a dialogue between the United States and North Korea and alleviate military tensions.9 Much concern is expressed about President Trump's distinctive "deal" style of doing things, but at the same time there is also a recognition and expectation that the Trump administration has succeeded in reaching a starting point, which ordinary approaches to diplomacy of past administrations could not.10

President Trump said at the news conference, "Chairman Kim is on his way back to North Korea and I know for a fact that as soon as he arrives he will start a process." But such a result as he had predicted has still not materialized. Rather, we should think that hard negotiations have started between the United States and North Korea, which will necessitate the attendance of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. At this moment, President Trump may be too preoccupied with self-promotion leading to the midterm elections to think about a timetable for diplomacy with North Korea including a denuclearization process.

Yet, the US diplomats who had negotiated with North Korea in advance of the president's meeting with Chairman Kim must have conducted negotiations taking into account every possible consideration. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, a former Ambassador to Korea and a former United States Special Representative for North Korea Policy, who had been involved in diplomacy with North Korea for many years, held a preliminary consultation with North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui at the North Korean facility "Tongilgak" on May 28-29. He also attended a last-minute preparatory meeting on June 11, one day before the historic summit. The summit talks and the joint statement are the outcome of these painstaking preparations and negotiations, and it might be better to consider the document not as sweet with empty words but as conducive to future bilateral negotiations. It seems that the diplomats on both sides jointly worked out the statement, taking into account the peculiarities of the North Korean regime where things can only move in a top-down manner.

Although North Korea's motives may leave room for discussion, the country should be regarded as ready to negotiate with the United States around the issue of nuclear abandonment. If the aim of North Korea's many years of nuclear development was to negotiate directly with the United States to secure the continuation of its political regime, there may be no reason for the North to thrown away the present golden opportunity.

Look out for further developments in the US-North Korea talks

The difficulty in monitoring from now on responses of the United States is attributable to the fact that President Trump and government officials do not necessarily share the same strategy. President Trump's short-sightedness and "deal" diplomacy are unlikely to change in the future. Therefore, it should be appreciated that the United States and North Korea have actually started negotiations at the recent summit and agreed on regime guarantee for North Korea in exchange of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

From now on, negotiations are expected to be left to consultations among diplomats from both sides, headed by Secretary of State Pompeo. Much more reliable results may be obtained than from Trump's unforeseeable "deal" diplomacy. Meanwhile, President Trump's timetable for policy implementation is quite short-lived. As has been indicated by Pompeo to North Korea, it is extremely reasonable to limit the negotiating period to the end of the first term of the Trump administration, in consideration of the US election calendar in which the re-election of President Trump will top the agenda. This will work as a constant pressure on North Korea for compliance with the recent agreement.

To look back on the past years, since the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the United States has failed to pursue a consistent North Korea policy due to differences in political direction and an ever-changing lineup of North Korea policy specialists who were replaced at every presidential election. North Korea, on the other hand, has steadily continued with the development of nuclear weapons and missiles, taking advantage of the discontinuity in US policy, and ultimately almost completed a nuclear warhead ICBM capable of hitting the US mainland.11 The United States should have pursued a consistent North Korea policy regardless of party and administration differences, but this was not the case. This is because military threats posed by North Korea were not estimated to be very serious to the security of the United States.

The timing of negotiations just before North Korea will complete an ICBM capable of reaching the United States will weaken the motivation of the two parties to postpone negotiations. For North Korea, President Trump, confident of his "deal" diplomacy, is a valuable gateway to negotiations, and at the same time he might be the last person to negotiate with on the issue of regime guarantee. The possession of an ICBM capable of striking the United States would provide North Korea with a deterrent to a homeland attack, while weakening momentum for negotiations on economic sanctions or economic aid.

The Trump administration is supposed to be eager to benefit by reaping what President Trump planted before the end of the first term of his presidency. In particular, the historic achievement of the denuclearization of North Korea would constitute a valuable political asset for President Trump and help him to shake off the Russiagate allegations against him and open the way to a victory in the 2020 Presidential Election. In this sense, it is hard to imagine that President Trump will spend much time in negotiations with North Korea on denuclearization. On the contrary, there is a good possibility that he should conduct negotiations intensively within a limited space of time to achieve the goal. It is of paramount importance for Japan not to miss the timing for a solution of the abduction issue. For Japan, the regional security balance is also another point of consideration. Japan should take into account the peculiarities of the Trump administration and the possibility that the US-North Korea talks will make accelerated progress. There is also another possible scenario of new military tensions resulting from the aborting of negotiations. Japan should formulate effective responses to address a wider array of future scenarios.

current topics