Just days out from the historic U.S. – North Korea Summit, Frank Aum reflects on pitfalls that previous administrations struggled with, and shares his thoughts about the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea.
Host: The President will, we think, be negotiating with Kim Jong Un and the North Koreans over their nuclear program. He said that things are on track for a summit in Singapore, June 12th. So, to discuss that we are joined by Frank Aum, he is the Senior Expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace tweeting @USIP, and Frank has some ideas about what the U.S. should and should not do. Thanks for joining us today.
Frank Aum: Glad to be here.
Host: Now you've written an article in The Hill about six past mistakes Trump can avoid in talks with North Korea. Now the President has talked a great deal about how he knows better than his predecessors on this and a number of other issues. But you have some concrete ideas about what he should not do that some previous presidents have done in negotiating with North Korea. What's the biggest one? What's the biggest mistake Americans make when they're trying to deal with the Kim regime?
Frank Aum: Well, I think, first of all, let me talk about what Trump has gotten right. So I think he deserves a lot of credit for making North Korea a top foreign policy priority. When President Trump left office, he told President Trump that North Korea would be the most urgent problem that he would face. Trump has really taken that to heart and taken a lot of really big steps to put forward his maximum pressure policy.
Frank Aum: Another thing I give President Trump credit for is seizing the opportunity to meet with Kim Jong Un directly. It's very helpful early on in the process to make sure that North Korea is buying in, and so, I think, that was a very good move by President Trump.
Frank Aum: We've seen in the past that sometimes when you wait too long, you never actually get to a summit, which is what happened in the 90s when we had a lot of negotiations with North Korea. But at the very end, by 2000 when President Clinton was thinking about going to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il, he ran out of time and that summit didn't happen.
Frank Aum: So I think President Trump is taking a lot of good steps so far, but it still remains to be seen how the summit itself plays out.
Host: Now we're assuming that this summit is going to take place. Do you think that's a safe assumption?
Frank Aum: Well President Trump confirmed that recently. So as far as we can tell, all the preparations that the US government is taking in terms of the logistics in Singapore, the preparatory talks in the DMZ as well as the visit by the Vice Chairman, Kim Yong Chun to New York, as well as delivering the letter to President Trump. All that seems to suggest that everything is on track, and President Trump has in fact confirmed that the summit is taking place on June 12th.
Host: One criticism, before the president had announced that the summit was off, one criticism was that he had not adequately prepared for these talks. When that cancellation was announced, the assumption was that it would be rescheduled, as it has been, and a lot of the criticism was, “Well, maybe this will give the president a chance to bone up a bit more.” Do you think he's done that?
Frank Aum: My understanding is that he has been briefed on issues for many hours of the last couple of weeks. I know that there was some criticism that President Trump has said before that he doesn't do a lot of planning or preparation, but I've read reports that he has been briefed on North Korean issues for the last several weeks.
Frank Aum: Again, I think what the president deserves credit for is upending this notion that you can't engage with an adversary because that somehow is a reward to them. I think again, it's very good that he's meeting with Kim Jong Un upfront. I think that of course, we need to make sure that the right preparation has been done, but it seems to be the case over the last couple of weeks. So I think he will be in a good position going into the summit.
Host: Talking with Frank Aum, Senior Expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Host: What are some of the opportunities that Mr. Trump has to succeed in these talks where some of his predecessors had fallen short?
Frank Aum: Well, I think he's made a good move by ... Remember early on the White House talking about getting everything upfront from North Korea. So getting them to denuclearize all upfront, immediately, and in the last couple of weeks we've seen the White House pull back from that, talking more about how this is going to be a process, and it's not going to be all in one, in one day. So I think that was a very good step by President Trump to demonstrate this flexibility.
Frank Aum: So I think a win at the summit would be this: I think at a minimum you would need to see North Korea commit to denuclearization. I think you also need to see the US provide some sort of concession. It may be a broad commitment to working towards a pathway to peace. I think it'd also be very helpful to have the two sides provide a timeline for how this denuclearization and peace process would play out. Whether it's six months or two years or three years, but some sort of timeline. Then finally, a ballpark date for when a next summit would be. Whether it's a bilateral summit, or even a trilateral summit with South Korea, or a quadrilateral summit with China.
Host: Should the U.S. guarantee that it will not threaten the existence of the Kim Jong Un regime?
Frank Aum: I think that'd be helpful. We have to look to see what North Korea's asking for. Often times, the focus, the discussion is primarily on what we want from North Korea, all the steps that we want to see North Korea take to demonstrate that it is seriously committed to denuclearization. But what would also be helpful is to think about what we're willing to provide as an incentive for North Korea.
Frank Aum: So what North Korea's asked for is a peace treaty and normalization relations. They want an end to hostile U.S. policies, this also includes a security guarantee. Now we've given security guarantees before in the past, and I don't think just something on paper that says that we're not going to attack North Korea is going to be sufficient for North Korea. It needs to be more than that, it needs to be concrete steps. In terms of reducing, for example, the tempo or pace of strategic nuclear assets on the Korean Peninsula, or their participation in joint military exercise. So I think there needs to be a lot more that the U.S. needs to do upfront in order to get North Koreans to make reciprocal actions.
Host: Now a number of times in the past, U.S. administrations have negotiated with North Korea, and have occasionally actually reach an agreement, only to have the North Koreans renege on that agreement. How do we prevent that from happening, if that's possible?
Frank Aum: Well I think again, it's helpful to move in a phased process, so that we're not getting ahead of ourselves and we're taking steps to verify everything that North Korea does, and not taking it at face value. At the same time, it's also helpful for North Koreans if we verify everything that we're going to do.
Frank Aum: So for example, instead of just making a declaration about peace, for example, it might be helpful to have a peace ... For example, if the ultimate agreement is a peace treaty let's say, then instead of being a non-binding political agreement or an executive agreement like the Iran deal, to have it be something that's approved and consented to by the Senate. That way, that gives the legitimacy of the legislative branch into this sort of agreement.
Frank Aum: So I think having a phased process where steps are taken that can be verified by both sides, and giving weight and credibility would be helpful for the process.
Host: Frank Aum, thanks so much for your insights. Good talking with you.
Frank Aum: You're welcome.
Host: Frank is Senior Expert on North Korea at the United States Institute of Peace, which you can find on Twitter, @USIP.