This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation on the June 12 edition of The Daily Signal podcast.
Daniel Davis: Well, it’s been all over the news this week. President Donald Trump’s first meeting with Kim Jong Un finally went down. Here to give analysis is Bruce Klingner, someone who’s also been all over the news this week, running around from news station to news station. He is a North Korea expert here at The Heritage Foundation. Bruce, thanks for taking the time to discuss with us.
Bruce Klingner: Well, thanks for having me.
Davis: The first meeting has happened, a brief document was produced and signed by the two leaders. The question, just to get things started here, is: What comes next?
Klingner: Well, we have to put a lot of meat onto what is a pretty scrawny skeleton. The document was actually extremely disappointing. It had four main pillars, each of which had been contained in a previous agreement with North Korea.
And in the previous documents, they were actually stronger and more encompassing than the very thin provisions that were there last night. And on the most important one—denuclearization–actually it was stronger in a September 2005 agreement with North Korea, which Pyongyang eventually walked away from.
Pretty disappointing start. There was also no mention of verification or human rights, even missiles. And on the nuclear issue where the administration had been hinting that North Korea was moving towards not only the U.S., but the U.N., required a version of what’s called CVID—complete verifiable irreversible dismantlement. North Korea clearly wasn’t moving forward as the administration said it had been.
Katrina Trinko: Are there any positives coming out of the summit in agreement? Do the United States get any kind of advancement that will help?
Klingner: It’s really kind of hard to find the silver lining. Overall, the fact that we’re talking about diplomacy rather than even a few months ago—talking about seemingly on the brink of war, U.S. talking about preventive attack on North Korea, which could have led to an all-out war. As the old phrase, jaw-jaw is better than war-war.
So that’s a step forward, but we’re going to need to put a lot of improvements into this agreement.
Davis: Well, the president mentioned that he’s going to invite Kim to the White House. This may be the first of several visits. Do you think those upcoming potential visits will provide an opportunity? And what kind of improvements would you look for?
Klingner: Well, I would hope we’d hold off a bit on having the North Korean leader come to the White House.
There are different strategies. … [President Trump’s] the negotiator in chief—he pointed out correctly that the eight previous agreements with North Korea all failed, so why not try something different? [But] I think the problem wasn’t the uniqueness or lack thereof of the U.S. approach, it was that North Korea always cheated or always didn’t fulfill its obligations.
The bottom-up approach is what all of us are more used to where you have lower-level officials, diplomats meet and then if they can make success, then they move it up to the higher levels.
I was attending White House meetings in 2000 as a CIA officer. At that time, North Korea had invited Bill Clinton, who was president at the time, to North Korea and some thought that the force of Bill’s personality was so strong that we could get whatever we wanted from North Korea, but the majority view [was], I think, quite correctly saying we don’t deploy a president to negotiate. We deploy a president to sign an agreement where they’re going to be no surprises.
President Trump is doing it the opposite way and perhaps it’ll give us a success at the end of the road but so far, the first steps have been a bit more of stumbles.
Trinko: Many seem to have been surprised by President Trump floating the idea of ending military exercises in South Korea. What do you think about that?
Klingner: Well, those that were surprised included our allies, South Korea and Japan, the Pentagon and U.S. forces, Korea were all surprised. With alliance management, you don’t really like to surprise your allies. Everyone is sort of scrambling now to either come up with what the president meant to say was, and walk it back a bit, or to sort of explain it to our allies.
I think what wasn’t a good proposal … What it can do is lead to a degradation of us deterrence and defense capabilities or even allied to deterrence and defense capabilities. And the reason the forces are there to … against the North Korean threat.
For the last couple of years, North Korea has been floating what we would call a freeze-for-freeze proposal where they would freeze their nuclear and missile tests in return for us and the South Koreans freezing our military exercises.
At the time Washington and Seoul correctly rejected that because they’d point out North Korea was trying to negotiate something it doesn’t legally have. They’re not allowed to do nuclear and missile tests under U.N. resolutions, [whereas] we’re allowed to do our military exercises. And also North Korea wasn’t thinking of any constraints on its own large-scale conventional force exercises. It was really a kind of an apples and oranges thing.
What apparently happened yesterday was the president, in essence, accepted half of it where we provide the concession and we didn’t even get a freeze on the nuke test or the missile tests, which we had hoped we would see that in the joint statement itself.
Davis: Well, if there are further meetings and there are more specific agreements to denuclearize or he used another word, I can’t remember what the term is.
Davis: Dismantle. Yeah. Sort of blowing up the testing sites. Then there would need to be pretty clear measures of verification, right? They would need to bring in people to inspect. What would that look like and do you think they’re likely to do that?
Klingner: Right. I think there are two things that we really need in any agreement with North Korea and it’s something I’ve long been critical of the previous agreements was when you compare them with the arms control treaties we had with the Soviet Union, all of the North Korean, or the agreements with North Korea, were very vague, very short. [They] didn’t have very detailed text, really identifying definitions and terms and what we meant by certain phrases.
So it enabled North Korea to more easily cheat or claim a different interpretation. And the other aspect again, which we had with the arms control treaties but not with agreements with the North, was sufficient verification, and people see verification is sort of a “gotcha.” It’s negative, it’s insulting to their sovereignty. But really … Well, on the one hand it is a way of trying to detect if someone is cheating, but it’s also a positive.
It’s a confidence and security building measure if the other side is compliant. You think of it perhaps like a random drug test of someone who’s on parole. If they’ve agreed to the terms of the parole, then in this case, you’d have police or a social worker periodically going and doing a drug test. And if they haven’t been violating parole, well, congratulations, thank you very much, this is a positive step. You’re obviously complying with the terms of the agreement and we can continue this and maybe even come up with a parallel agreement on some other issue. And if they’re cheating, well, then you want to be able to catch them.
If you have a situation where you have what’s called short-notice challenge inspections of nondeclared facilities, which is quite a mouthful, but it’s really, you have a few of these challenge inspections, you go to North Korea [and] say, “I want to go to this suspect site,” and if they don’t let you in, well, you have a problem.
If you go in and you find something, well, then that’s a problem. But if you go in, they let you look around, you don’t find anything that’s a violation, well, then you get the next suspicious site from the CIA and you inspect that, but overall, you’re moving down the road, you’re showing that the other side is in compliance, so it’s a positive if they’re not cheating.
Trinko: What do you think about, to use a very D.C. word, the optics of the meeting? I was on Twitter last night and a lot of people were really shocked to see the North Korea flag and the United States flag side by side. Trump has made some very positive comments about Kim Jong Un, including, I believe, calling him a talented leader. Of course, there’s still the human rights issue, tens of thousands are in these labor camps in North Korea. It has an egregious track record on the human rights issue. So yeah, what do you think about the overall approach to those issues during this meeting?
Klingner: Yeah, I guess I’d see two aspects. The first is that within diplomacy, a presidential meeting is seen as sort of the highest coin in the realm of diplomacy, particularly the first meeting, the historic meeting, particularly with an enemy or opponent nation.
Previous presidents didn’t spin that coin in meeting with North Korea until there was sort of a certainty that North Korea was moving forward on certain issues.
But so we did it differently this time. In my view, I don’t think we got a big enough return on the investment of spinning this coin.
The other aspect is, as you point out, the human rights. Now leaders have to meet with leaders of countries, or diplomats meet with diplomats of countries, that are doing atrocious things. And you may need to have the meeting in order to further U.S. strategic interests.
But that doesn’t mean you have to sort of compliment someone who, like Kim Jong Un, is on the U.S. sanctions list for human rights violations. The U.N. did a commission of inquiry several years ago where they concluded, after extensive study, that North Korea’s human rights violations were so atrocious and widespread and systemic that it constituted crimes against humanity.
Certainly if you need to, you can meet with North Korea to try to reduce the security threat or improve conditions. But perhaps not roll out the red carpet of welcome.
Trinko: OK. Last question. What would your advice be to the White House on how to move going forward?
Klingner: What we need to do is get much more detailed text. We need to really clearly define even just what would seem like simple terms. Actually, North Korea has very different definitions for the word “denuclearization” or the “Korean Peninsula.” We think denuclearization is like the U.N. requires that North Korea abandoned its nuclear arsenal, its missal arsenal, its biological and chemical weapons. Well, North Korea sees it not as unilateral disarmament, but global arms control and as a self-professed member of the nuclear club, they say that they’ll go down to zero when the rest of the world does.
And even the Korean Peninsula, we see it as the land mass and when we hear about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, we figure, well, one half of it is already denuclearized—South Korea—so we just need to denuclearize the other half. Well, North Korea defines it as anything that influences or impacts the peninsula.
So U.S. nuclear-capable submarines and aircraft carriers, even our strategic bombers way down in Guam, they would consider part of the Korean Peninsula because it influences or could attack North Korea.
Davis: Bruce, we appreciate you being here to break it down. Thanks for joining us.