North Korea has actually been improving its economy in the last three years, says Mark Fitzpatrick of International Institute of Strategic Studies.
The countdown has begun for the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean supremo Kim Jong-Un in Singapore’s southern island of Sentosa, which means “peace and tranquility” in Malay. The island’s previous name was Pulau Belakang Mati, meaning “Island After Death”. When the two leaders meet, the world will be watching them. Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), Americas, spoke exclusively to The Sunday Guardian explaining the contours of the meeting. Washington-based Fitzpatrick is a former US Foreign Service officer, with postings in many countries, including Seoul and Tokyo. He is considered the US’ foremost expert on North Korea and its nuclear strategy. Fitzpatrick also runs IISS Non-proliferation and Nuclear Policy Program. Excerpts:
Q: Can you explain the framework within which the meeting of President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-Un is taking place?
A: The meeting with Chairman Kim means a lot to President Trump. It elevates his standing and gives him success that Barack Obama never had a meeting, never had a breakthrough with North Korea. So, President Trump is willing to cut corners in order to achieve what he sees as important for his political and diplomatic legacy. But in doing so, Trump may be cutting corners rather oddly… I think he is going to agree to things that he has criticised deeply Obama for in the Iran deal. Probably, whatever deal comes out of this summit will not be as good as the Iran deal in terms of verifications and cutbacks. Most likely, North Korea will agree to the goal of de-nuclearisation, but probably there would be differences of meanings—what it means to each side and agree to a process—a kind of step-by-step approach to get there with a deadline of two-and-a-half years before the end of Trump’s first term. So, it would be kind of a big deal, but less concrete in comparison to the Iran deal. But Trump will have the support of his members in the Republican Party and the Congress; so it will be kind of President Richard Nixon’s visit-to-China dynamic that Trump can achieve things that no other leader could achieve because he would have the support of the Republicans and then most Democrats will support it because they are intrinsically supportive of diplomacy. The result is likely to be an incomplete de-nuclearisation, but it would be a better situation than we had last year when North Korea was improving its nuclear and missile programmes. And there was a talk about the potential of military strike which would escalate to an all-out war.
Q: What exactly brought the two leaders to the table?
A: A very good question and it isn’t clear, but the key is in the Korean peninsula. What made Jong-Un change his policy? He didn’t want to talk to the South Koreans at all, he wouldn’t respond positively to his South Korean counterpart or his overtures. And then suddenly he did. Well, there are two important factors and I think the most important factor was not the pressure he was under. Although the economic pressure was real, the military pressure was real. So I guess this led to Kim Jong-Un’s willingness to try a different tact. But the most important was that Kim had reached a level of success in his nuclear and missile programme; in August he tested a hydrogen bomb, a thermos nuclear bomb, a massive yield and in November, he successfully tested an ICBM that could hit anywhere in the United States. So, now he could deal and he entered the stage of negotiations.
Q: Many critics say in plain language that he was broke, economically broke.
A: He was not economically broke, this is a misconception. North Korea has actually been improving its economy over the last three years. They did face economic pressure; it is actually true that China did join the UN pressure sanctions on North Korea. But North Korea is very skilful at beating sanctions. They sent out ships into the high sea to transfer oil. They sent coal to Russia, dumped it off there and had someone else come along and pick it up. So these sanctions were not strangling the country. Yes, he was under economic pressure, no doubt. But it is an exaggeration to think he was on his knees economically.
Q: Individuals do make a difference in history. How do you look at these two individuals?
A: Here we have a summit of two megalomaniac personalities who are often described as unpredictable and ego-centric. Now, this is more the case with Trump who is a loose cannon; his manner of governance is spur-of-the-moment, off the top of his head and he thinks he is a great deal-maker and can do things one-on- one. Kim Jong-Un is a more steady leader as far as I can tell, he is not as unpredictable as Trump. But we really do not know Kim Jong-Un. He has never met with a foreign official until this March, when he met with South Korean leaders. He has come out of his shell and is certainly engaging on the world stage like he is a professional. He is still this young guy who doesn’t have much experience diplomatically. I can think one thing, as you said, yes individuals matter. We have two individuals and Trump wants this to be mano-a-mano, man to man, but still there are people behind the scenes who are advising and making arrangements and, in this case, North Koreans have an advantage because they have people who have been doing this for a long time. They don’t have such changes in their personages, whereas US has depleted its State Department, all the people who dealt with North Korea in the past are gone. The State Department is not even involved in the negotiations and at the White House, you have people who are very hard-line and not really interested in diplomacy. It is quite amazing actually. You have John Bolton, National Security Advisor, who has written that a summit meeting with Kim is only useful to an extent so that you can get over with it quickly and then go to military strategy. So Trump has very different goals than his National Security Advisor. Trump wants diplomatic success. Bolton doesn’t believe in diplomacy.
Q: So, when Kim Jong-Un is meeting Trump, he meets from a position of strength?
A: In a way I think he is. He has a more consistent approach, he has a more solid and knowledgeable experience. Let me say that he has a more experienced team behind him than Trump. It is remarkable that North Koreans somehow have a better team than Americans.
Q: What’s your minimum and maximum expectation of this meeting?
A: Well, I hope this meeting does achieve the de-nuclearisation of North Korea. It won’t happen immediately by any stretch of imagination, but possibly over the next two-and-a-half years, North Korea will agree to trade off its nuclear programme for becoming a part of the world community of nations and engaging in economic development with assistance from the US. This is a huge dream, it is very unlikely, but if you ask me what is the maximalist expectation, idealist possibility don’t completely rule it out. Now, one has to weigh this against the possibility of a real disaster. There is a huge disaster possibility in that nothing is agreed to, Trump makes demands of Kim that Kim doesn’t accept, and Trump gets frustrated and he walks out and the meeting ends in no agreement and then Bolton convinces Trump that “you see, I told you diplomacy and engagement is worthless, let us go on to a military strike”. A second bad scenario is that in his desire to achieve something, Trump is quite weak in what he asks for and agrees to the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea.
Q: Is that a real possibility?
A: It is a possibility. Earlier this year, Trump had talked about withdrawing US forces from South Korea. So he might conceivably agree to it and with nothing concrete in return from North Korea. This would really rupture the alliance with South Korea and also with Japan. This will be a very bad outcome. I don’t think this is going to happen. I feel what is going to happen is some vague agreement over the denuclearisation process with details to be filled in later.
Q: When you say vague, you mean this will be more symbolic and not substantial?
A: Yes, I think it is going to be more symbolic and not too substantial.
Q: How is this meeting going to impact other deals like the Iran deal and other nuclear issues?
A: If US offers a good deal to North Korea, then it sends a message that acquiring nuclear weapons is actually advantageous because it puts you in a strong bargaining position. So, the countries that might aspire to nuclear weapons might have a stronger incentive to do that. As I said earlier, there are not many countries who want nuclear weapons and who don’t already have them. Pakistan already has them, India already has them. Iran might be the only country that has a very strong nuclear hedging strategy and might learn a wrong lesson from such an agreement with North Korea.
Q: Some people speculate that if this meeting leads to denuclearisation, then both leaders can be claimant for a Nobel Peace Prize?
A: If Trump really succeeds in a deal, I think he can be given recognition by giving a Nobel Peace Prize. But I highly doubt that Norwegians will really give the peace prize to Trump, because he is so despised through much of Europe and all over the world for his various other policies—the anti-Muslim ban, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, his assault on civil liberties, application of tariffs against European states on steel and aluminium—they don’t like him at all. So, even if Trump does reach some accord with North Korea, I don’t think the Norwegians are going to award him.
Q: How is the domestic pressure in both countries?
A: I don’t think domestic politics will play much of a role in either of the countries. First of all, there is no domestic politics in North Korea, it is an autocracy and in America, the Republican Party that controls the Congress will go with anything that Trump does. So I don’t think he will be restrained by the Congress.
Q: So he can give in?