DANIEL VAUGHAN: Trump’s big stick at the North Korean Singapore summit

June 11, 2018

President Donald Trump’s decision to hold a summit in Singapore with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is historical — and dangerous.

It’s historic in the sense that Kim is gaining legitimacy as a leader in meeting with Trump, granting him the attention he and his father desperately craved for decades.

But it’s dangerous because Kim desperately needs access to the West’s financial system, or North Korea risks furthering their severe economic crisis.

And while all of the above is true, coverage of the summit is also superfluous. Based on the currently known itinerary for the summit, Trump and Kim won’t be spending much time together.

In fact, current reports anticipate the meeting lasting just a few hours:

Messrs. Trump and Kim are scheduled to meet face to face Tuesday—the first summit between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

Mr. Kim is currently scheduled to depart Singapore at 2 p.m. Tuesday, just five hours after his summit with Mr. Trump is set to begin, a person familiar with the matter said. Mr. Trump is set to leave on Wednesday morning, this person added.

It’s hard to imagine any deal coming from a meeting so short when the two sides are so far apart on the issues.

The U.S. position is simple: complete denuclearization of the North Korean peninsula, while secretly hoping for a regime change. The North Korean situation is also simple: sanctions relief, while giving up as little as possible.

From a pure negotiating standpoint, I don’t expect any deal, nor would I advise President Trump to reach one. The summit is more likely to be a glorified photo-op where the two leaders meet, share a few pleasantries, and go on their way.

I’m hopeful, however, that President Trump can convey the real threat of further U.S. sanctions unless the Kim regime denuclearizes.

The U.S. position should follow President Theodore Roosevelt’s sage advice: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

When the Trump administration originally reinstituted sanctions against North Korea back in February, the administration called them the “largest” set of sanctions ever. Since then, we’ve had time to ascertain the effectiveness of those sanctions and seen the results.

In March, just a month after instituting the sanctions, the North Korean economy started contracting:

Prior to trade sanctions, Mr. Kim, party elites and North Korean businesspeople likely held at least $3 billion of hard currency, estimates Kim Byung-Yeon, an economics professor at Seoul National University. He calculates that Pyongyang has run a trade deficit of around $1.5 billion since March 2017 and that its gross domestic product shrank by around 2% last year. The professor said a more severe contraction seems inevitable this year if North Korea keeps burning through cash reserves.

Without imported fuel, spare parts and raw materials needed for agricultural and industrial output, some aid workers and experts say food shortages could emerge. The United Nations Children’s Fund said in January sanctions had slowed aid deliveries, and 60,000 North Korean children face potential starvation. Two decades ago, a multiyear North Korean famine took up to two million lives.

The Trump administration has also indicated it has a list of more than 300 new sanctions to levy against the North Korean government.

In other words, we need the president to convey to the North Korean tin-pot dictator that the United States has a massive economic sanctions stick, and he intends to use it — unless Kim agrees to the complete denuclearization of his government.

Because it’s not just poor economic sanctions at stake, the threat should be a worse than the rock bottom multi-year famine that plagued the Asian nation two decades ago.

Kim may be young, but he’s likely to remember the destruction sanctions brought during the Clinton administration. At that time, the elder Kim was able to weasel his way out of the sanctions while continuing the nuclear program after signing a deal with Bill Clinton.

The younger Kim likely wants a similar deal, where he gets access to Western aid while lying about denuclearization.

The end goal for this summit is to make Kim believe the only viable survival option is denuclearization. Otherwise, he has to know economic destruction is imminent from U.S. sanctions.

And while I don’t agree with the domestic tariffs and trade wars Trump is waging with his counterparts in the rest of the free world, his willingness to raise tariffs on allies should undergird the threat to enemies like North Korea.

The point of all the above is to convey to the North Koreans the overwhelming strength of the United States, both militarily and economically. They simply can’t think that the president is weak and won’t follow through on threats.

Nor can the U.S. afford a scenario where Kim sees Trump as a weak leader, where Kim can get what he wants by pushing his weight around, similar to the failed Vienna summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1961.

It was Kennedy’s failure and weakness at Vienna that gave Khrushchev the impetus to build the Berlin Wall later that year.

The U.S. carries a large stick, and so far has walked softly around Kim. Will this change?

The Singapore summit may be nothing more than a glorified photo-op, but hopefully, Trump can build off American might to break the Kim regime.


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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.