Fraying U.S. Relationships with Allies Makes Progress on North Korea More Difficult

It is almost a month since the Singapore Summit brought together U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It is too early to assess the value and significance of that meeting. The president is still very upbeat about the meeting’s success. “Many good conversations with North Korea—it is going well!” he wrote earlier this week in a July 3 tweet. “If not for me we would now be at war with North Korea.”

Already, however, there are clouds on the horizon of U.S.-North Korea relations that suggest potential problems post summit. North Korea made remarkably few specific commitments in the document signed at Singapore. Though it has begun dismantling some nuclear facilities, at the same time a recent report on commercial satellite imageryindicates that the North is continuing infrastructure improvements at a plutonium production facility “at a rapid pace.” While President Trump is focused on selling the value of the North Korea summit to the public and the media, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are dealing with the specifics of turning the vague assurances of Singapore into “complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization,” a task that proves difficult.

A quick look at what took place earlier this year prior to the Singapore Summit suggests that the task may be even more difficult because of the fraying of America’s relationships with allies and partners that have been central to U.S. policy to deal with North Korea’s nuclear efforts.

Beginning with the presidential campaign over two years ago, President Trump has repeatedly said he would pursue an “America First” foreign policy. In his Inaugural Addressin January 2017, he declared, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”  He explained that this meant decisions would benefit American workers and American families. In fact, however, his foreign policies have moved the U.S. toward isolationism, ignoring the benefits to the American people of active involvement in shaping the international environment and engaging with the rest of the world.

The concern is that critically important American international interests frequently cannot be reduced to a trade spreadsheet. Trade in services and intellectual property doesn’t neatly fit into a trade balance. Furthermore, one of the principal American international interests is in shaping and maintaining a system of international relationships that adhere to internationally accepted rules of behavior and supporting international institutions like the United Nations that help to make the world more hospitable to American trade and other interests.

The image that probably best encapsulates the America First isolationist foreign policy is the photo of President Trump at the G-7 Summit in Quebec. He is sitting arms folded, surrounded by the standing government leaders of the other six G-7 states—Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada—and the head of the European Union. John Bolton in tweeting the photo gave it this description: “The President made it clear today. No more.” Time magazine suggested this image shows “Trump against the world.” Other participants reportedly saw it less positively, suggesting it highlights Trump as unreasonable and stubborn. 

The dénouement of the Quebec conference made the problem clear. After initially agreeing to sign the joint G-7 statement, President Trump tweeted that the United States would not endorse the joint agreement. The reason given was that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made false statements and Canada was imposing “massive tariffs” on American imports. The following day, the Canadian prime minister announced that Canada was imposing tariffs on the import of certain American goods in response to the Trump administration’s newly imposed tariffs on Canadian products. While Trump’s action toward Prime Minister Trudeau might make sense in the context of a narrow reading of the Art of the Deal, in the broader context it was an affront to one of the largest U.S. trade partners and one of our closest allies. 

After these less-than-amicable exchanges in Quebec, Trump flew directly to Singapore, where he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. After the summit with Kim Jong-un, the American president was full of praise for the North Korean dictator. It was an “honor” to meet him; Kim was “a worthy negotiator” and “a smart negotiator.” David Graham in The Atlantic observed that “Trump’s flattery is noteworthy because he is much better known for vinegar than honey in his public statements.” He noted that the president’s comments stand “in contrast to his sharp words for allies, especially democratic ones, over recent weeks—especially some harsh swipes at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.”

As we move into the post–Singapore Summit phase of what will be a critical effort to move North Korea toward denuclearization and greater security in Northeast Asia, our relationships with our international partners are critical. President Trump’s prickly relationships with allies—particularly in contrast to his effusive praise and deference for dictators whose interests are quite contrary to our own national interests—could make that process much more complicated. President Trump seems to understand “how to make a deal” when it is a simple one-off negotiation, but he does not seem to grasp the intertwined complexities of foreign policy when political, economic, security, and other elements are all interrelated with a variety of countries.

South Korea. The United States has a security treaty with South Korea, almost 30,000 American troops are stationed there, and it is a major U.S. trading partner. We have had a very close relationship since the outbreak of the Korean War 65 years ago this year.  South Korean President Moon Jae-in played a key role in setting up the Trump-Kim summit. The government in Seoul has a critical interest in establishing better ties with its brothers and sisters in the North, and South Korea would be the first victim if the North engaged in hostile military action. Yet, when President Trump cavalierly sent a letter to Kim Jong-un calling off the Singapore Summit on May 24 (less than three weeks before the meeting was to take place), the U.S. president did not bother to warn the South Korean president in advance. The White House informed South Korea and Japan after the cancelation was made public in a Tweet from the president that included the text of his letter to Kim Jong-un. Reportedly the president feared the news would leak out if he discussed this with U.S. allies, and this would take the steam out of his tweet announcing the cancelation.

A second noteworthy embarrassment to South Korea came when President Trump announced at the Singapore Summit the cancelation of “War Games” involving U.S. and South Korean troops. Trump not only used the derogatory term “war games,” which is the North Korean propaganda term for what the U.S. calls “training exercises,” he also did not bother to inform the South Korean government in advance that he was doing this. Military and government officials in Seoul were caught unaware when the U.S. president made the announcement, apparently without advance consultation or without even informing the South. Officials at the Pentagon were also taken by surprise by the announcement. While joint U.S.-South Korean training exercises will be canceled this summer, North Korea will continue to hold its own regular military training exercises. Just a few weeks after the summit, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis made a quick visit to South Korea and Japan“to reassure Washington’s key East Asian allies after president Donald Trump unilaterally suspended military exercises in South Korea, sparking concern over his commitment to the region.”

Japan. The Japanese, like the South Koreans, apparently were not kept informed of U.S. intentions and plans as the summit was being set up. Japan is only 600 miles from North Korea, the North has fired some of its nuclear-capable missiles across Japanese territory, and Japanese citizens have been illegally abducted by North Korea and held there against their will. Like Seoul, Tokyo was not informed in advance of the initial cancelation of the summit or the suspension of annual military training exercises, which are both issues of significance to Japanese leaders. Japan is one of our closest allies, as well as one of our most important trading partners. In addition some 50,000 American troops are stationed in Japan. These actions are likely to raise concerns about whether the United States is a reliable ally. 

China. The path of U.S.-North Korea relations is also of critical importance to China. The People’s Republic has shown a special interest in North Korea since it intervened in the Korean War to prevent Pyongyang’s defeat. The continued importance of China is evident from the fact that Kim Jong-un visited China for summit meetings with Xi Jinping twice in the weeks leading up to the Singapore Summit. 

Economic sanctions on the North depend on China for enforcement. China is a member of the UN Security Council with the power to veto any substantive actions by the Council, including economic sanctions against the North. Some 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade is with China. Furthermore, North Korea’s longest border (some 900 miles) is with China. The good will, interest, and support of China is critically important if economic sanctions are to be adopted and enforced. The Trump administration’s recent trade policies toward China, including the imposition of tariffs on Chinese-made products entering the United States, leave our government in a much more difficult position should we seek to reimpose sanctions if the North does not follow through on its vague verbal commitments on denuclearization.

United Nations. The UN has played a key role in putting international pressure on North Korea in dealing with its nuclear arms. For example, after the last North Korean nuclear test in September 2017, the UN imposed the most stringent economic sanctions on Pyongyang. They were not perfect, but through U.S.-Chinese negotiation they were the toughest we have been able to impose. With Chinese involvement the sanctions have been reasonably well enforced. In this imperfect world, we have been able to work with the UN in making progress. 

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has already begun to step back from engagement with the United Nations. The most distressing sign thus far was the decision of the United States to no longer participate in the UN Human Rights Council, which played a critical role in pressing North Korea for improvements in its abysmal human rights practices. 

The tendency of an “America First” policy as it has played out thus far is for the United States to “pick up our marbles and go home” if we do not get our way or if our actions are criticized. If we look at these issues through a broader lens, the good that comes from engagement with the United Nations is far more important and far more useful in the long term than the occasional setbacks that we encounter by engaging.

Maintaining positive relations with our allies—the countries that share our vision of the world, our commitment to democracy and human rights, and our support for a free-market economy—are far more important than efforts to improve ties with countries that do not share our values. Progress on denuclearization by North Korea is more likely if we maintain and strengthen ties with our allies and partners than if we enthusiastically embrace vaguely worded commitments with despots.