Washington Wednesday: The latest on North Korea

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 13th of March, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, Washington Wednesday.

Last month in Vietnam, President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for nuclear talks. Both sides seemed to enter the summit with high hopes, but it ended early without an agreement.

At a post-summit press conference, President Trump explained the impasse.

TRUMP: Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted, in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to de-nuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all the sanctions for that… We had to walk away from that.

REICHARD: North Korea later disputed that characterization. It said Kim only asked for partial sanctions relief.

Regardless, the two sides left Vietnam without a deal—and without a clear path forward in the nuclear talks.

EICHER: Here now to talk about where things go from here is Professor Will Inboden. He’s  executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin.

Previously, he served at the State Department and the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush.

Professor, thank you for your time today and good morning to you.

INBODEN: Good morning, Nick. Thank you for having me.

EICHER: Let me start with your reaction to the Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam. A lot of people characterized it as a failed diplomatic effort. I wonder if expectations in the media were simply too high for it. Do you see it that way, as a failure?

INBODEN: Overall it is a failure, but I do want to point out a couple of positives that came out of it. And, yes, there were expectations fairly high, but I think the expectations were set pretty high by President Trump than by, necessarily, the media. So any high expectations you saw in the media were taking their cues from the president. So I think the president was probably the one who was most disappointed by the outcome.

EICHER: Well, speaking of disappointment, last week we heard reports that North Korea is rebuilding a missile launch site it had promised to dismantle. Seemed like credible reports, too, with satellite images showing this recent activity. How concerned are you about that rebuilding effort?

INBODEN: I would say very concerned but not at all surprised. I mean, this has been a consistent pattern with the North Koreans of using occasional rounds of negotiations with the United States sometimes as a ruse or cover while they continue to advance on both their nuclear weapons program and their ballistic missile program which, of course, have now been converging.

Going back to your question about how do we evaluate the summit overall to put this in context, I think the two positives that came out of it are, one, it did test a new approach of direct leader-to-leader talks between President Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Of course no U.S. president before had been willing to do that. And it was—given the past American policies hadn’t really worked on North Korea, this was at least worth a try.

And then, second, that President Trump was willing to walk away from a bad deal. The biggest concern going into this was that Trump would be so desperate for a deal — the way Obama was so desperate for a deal with Iran on their nuclear program — that he would just accept almost anything. So it’s good that he was willing to walk away.

But why I would overall evaluate the summit as a failure and potentially even a setback is I don’t think it was worth it to get those two positives because I think the summit also gave us several negative outcomes.

First, is merely by having it, President Trump gave away significant leverage that the United States had had before. Every previous North Korean leader had desperately wanted to be seen on the world stage meeting with an American president with the international community looking on. That was a real enticement for them, and I don’t think we should have given that up without some meaningful concessions from them in return.

Second, along the way, President Trump has announced the canceling of the large-scale annual joint military exercises the United States does with the South Korean military. That’s a huge concession to the North Koreans and the Chinese. And yet we get nothing in return.

Third, President Trump gave Kim a huge propaganda boost by exonerating Kim, effectively, on the murder, really, of American citizen Otto Warmbier. I know Trump later tried to walk that back a little bit, but the real headline was him saying he believed Kim when Kim said he had nothing to do with that. And that was really damaging to American credibility and the cause of human rights in North Korea.

And then the fourth is even though the United States has not lifted the sanctions on North Korea, when Trump has been telegraphing these positive feelings he has towards Kim and his desperation for a summit, that signaled to other countries that the United States was perhaps less serious about enforcing the sanctions.

And that’s why we’ve seen China and Russia violating the sanctions. And they’re a couple of North Korea’s main economic partners, and they’re really helping keep the North Korean regime afloat. There’s a new UN report coming out soon describing all the other ways North Korea is evading the sanctions.

And so the two things that make sanctions work are what are the actual sanctions themselves and then what is the political will to enforce them? And on that second part I think we gave up a lot with the optics of the summit. So that’s why overall I do worry the summit was a setback.

EICHER: You did mention your concern about that missile launch site being rebuilt. I wonder, do you see it as coincidental or do you think it’s a direct result of the Vietnam summit?

INBODEN: It’s hard to know what exactly is in the mind of the North Koreans, but even though they have for a time suspended testing on their nuclear weapons and their missiles, they have certainly not stopped developing them and building new ones and more advanced ones.

And so this is… We do seem to see a pattern of the Kim regime using diplomacy as a diversion while they continue to advance on their programs. And so I think he was probably doing that one because he wants to build more advanced ballistic missiles and, two, because he sees it as a way of increasing his leverage over the United States.

EICHER: Well, tell me what you see as the path forward now for us on North Korea?

INBODEN: Oh, well, I do worry that we’ve dug ourselves into a little bit of a hole here. It was a risky gambut to try these two summits — the Singapore one and then the Hanoi one — and now that the Trump administration has played out that hand, if you will, they’re going back to the drawing board.

I do know that National Security Advisor John Bolton, in particular, was always skeptical of these endeavors, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea Special Envoy Steve Biegun have given it a worthy try, but I think they also have realized the limits.

And so I think next is trying to redouble the sanctions, perhaps strengthen the parts of the sanctions regime that have been crumbling, perhaps need to try another approach of dialogue with the North Koreans at much lower working levels, see if some progress can be made there. That’s a more traditional way of doing diplomacy before then teeing it up for a possible other summit down the road.

And, finally, what I would certainly hope we do is repair the very frayed ties with our allies, especially South Korea and Japan, who for very different reasons were left out of the loop on the summit and have had a number of concerns with the directions of American policy here. So, any sort of solution that the Korean peninsula has to be done in concert with our allies, especially Japan and South Korea.

EICHER: Well, let me ask you to imagine yourself back on the National Security Council and suppose you had the opportunity to advise President Trump on this, what would be your biggest piece of advice for him?

INBODEN: There’s a lot of things I’d want to say, but the single biggest one would be recapture, redevelop a human rights policy towards North Korea. He had that initially when he featured the North Korean defectors in his first State of the Union. We have it in the law, past administrations — especially the Bush administration have done a lot on this — but that is North Korea’s biggest vulnerability is its ghastly oppression of its own people.

Literally hundreds of thousands of them in prisons, effectively concentration camps. The entire country’s a virtual jail. And that’s because Kim is afraid of his own people.

And I think if the United States had a more meaningful human rights policy there, one, it’s the right thing to do morally — standing up for human dignity as I think we’re called to do as a country — but second, it’s a way to get at one of Kim’s most acute vulnerabilities. So that, I think, needs to be rediscovered as an important pillar of American policy.

EICHER: Will Inboden is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security. Professor, thank you for talking with me this morning

INBODEN: Thank you, Nick. I enjoyed it.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) In this Feb. 28, 2019 file photo, U.S President Donald Trump, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un take a walk after their first meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, in Hanoi, Vietnam. 

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