On 6 August 2018, Japan marked the 73rd anniversary since atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima by the United States but the threat of nuclear proliferation persists. The US under the Trump administration has resorted to what could be called ‘Reality TV’ diplomacy to address the persisting threat of nuclear proliferation. Since the historic June 13 Singapore Summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un, diplomatic momentum has faltered mainly because of Trump’s ‘reality TV’ diplomacy did not discourage Pyongyang from discontinuing its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) build up. North Korea has certainly made up its mind that the status quo of keeping nuclear stockpiles is not so bad after all because the United States conceded to North Korea without getting any concessions from Kim Jong-un. At this point, Pyongyang realizes that Mr. Trump’s failure to set up ‘reciprocal, step by step processes’ regarding North Korea’s nuclear program buys North Korea time to continue building and improving its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
According to the Washington Post intelligence agencies in the US have discovered that North Korea’s Sanumdong missile assembly facility (the facility that created DPRK’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US) is constructing new missiles. Pyongyang’s actions are not surprising considering that the Kim regime always manages to covertly and overtly continue working on their atomic capabilities even when denuclearization negotiations are in ongoing. North Korea’s activities at the Sanumdong missile facility are not only showing that North Korea is violating the vague ‘Joint declaration’ that was made in Singapore but prove that Trump’s ill-equipped ‘reality TV’ diplomacy has failed to stop nuclear proliferation in North Korea. No matter how much Mr. Trump and his administration argue that Pyongyang is no longer a threat, their taunts are further from the truth. Pyongyang remains a nuclear threat as it was before the June 13th summit and if proper denuclearization talks with North Korea are not held- North Korea’s uranium enrichment program would lead the Sanumdong facility creating more ICBMs like the powerful Hwasong-15.
In an article titled The Denuclearization Summit that had an Agreement with a Missing ‘VI’ Protocol, I questioned why the Singapore Summit was held in the first place. There was nothing substantive about the four major agreements that were made besides offering Kim Jong-un legitimacy and elevating North Korea’s position on the world stage as a nuclear weapons power. The Joint Declaration did not address key aspect issues of how and when North Korea would denuclearize because Mr. Trump was more focused on photo-ops and the ‘reality TV’ aspect of the Singapore Summit with the North Korean ruler. Even though, Trump described the Joint Statement as ‘very comprehensive’ the US President failed to separate pageantry and negotiation procedures that ensure a comprehensive deal. Timelines and procedural protocols on how Pyongyang would finally denuclearize should have been discussed in the preliminary stages of the negotiations. The timelines and deadlines would ensure maintaining good faith on how when the final comprehensive dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program would be reached or how it would be achieved. During the negotiations between the P5+1+EU and Iran, step by step processes which included timelines and reciprocal protocols were put in place to ensure the Joint Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme would lead to a comprehensive solution. The Trump administration should adopt such a diplomatic negotiation style with North Korea’s nuclear program because reality TV diplomacy tactic is not enough to secure nuclear disarmament.
While we are on the issue of Iran, it is important to note that the nuclear non-proliferation regime has had some of its successes reversed because of Mr. Trump’s irrationality. The P5+1+EU had managed to stall Iran’s nuclear program through the JCPOA but Mr. Trump had to gamble the gains that the international non-proliferation regime had made. It was senseless for the US to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal without a substitute for that deal and the viability of complete disarmament of nuclear weapons by rogue states was reversed. The possibility of Iran restarting uranium enrichment program again is a possibility – an act that was prohibited by the JCPOA. Nuclear proliferation from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea is a serious threat to peace and security. Even though I am optimistic, that non-proliferation can still be achieved the prospects of disarmament remain fragile and ‘reality TV’ diplomacy is not the answer. Trump’s threats to Iran on Twitter after he had withdrawn from the JCPOA and renewal of sanctions risks North Korea concluding that the United States is not a credible actor to negotiate with a disarmament treaty. Moving forward how would the Trump administration attempt to negotiate with Iran without the Rouhani administration questioning their credibility.
Even though some might argue that ignorance is bliss, with diplomacy ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance leads to actors like Mr. Trump offering unreciprocated concessions to Kim Jong-un, like agreeing to end joint US-South Korea military drills even though North Korea does not offer a tangible timeline on its denuclearization efforts. Ignorance to the nuances of diplomatic negotiations leads the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to assert that it is up to North Korea to decide the denuclearization timeline. How they expect a leader like Kim Jong-un to set up a timeline that would eventually lead to the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons is a flight of fancy only the Trump administration seems to have. Analysts who have analyzed North Korea for the past decades agree that North Korea will not dismantle its nuclear capability as long as that nuclear capability remains an instrument for the survival of the regime. Deadlines on issues of dismantlement must be agreed upon by both parties and should not be left to one party –that has the illegal nuclear weapons to decide when it sees fit to initiate the denuclearization efforts. It is up to both the US and North Korea to set a timeline that is realistic and includes penalties if North Korea fails to adhere to the deadlines. Thus, fast-paced ‘reality TV’ diplomacy cannot work but an adoption of traditional diplomatic tactics would at least be the litmus test to see whether North Korea is ready to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
The decision by Trump to concede to end the US-South Korea joint military exercises is puzzling especially if one takes into consideration that North Korea had not offered anything that was equal to such a concession. Whether the concession was a sign of good faith towards North Korea or an illustration of negotiation recklessness remains a paradox. Ending the joint military exercises does not only leave South Korea without a deterrent against the increasing threat of North Korea’s ballistic missile program but it leaves a vacuum in the East Asia region that could be filled by China. Given North Korea’s track record of walking back on agreements, such concessions should be given if North Korea accepts independent inspectors from an organization such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its uranium enrichment facilities and missile factories. Past diplomatic attempts to end North Korea’s nuclear program should save as an example of how North Korea manages to walk back on agreements. North Korea’s tactics, however, should not discourage State actors from attempting to have diplomatic dialogue but they should prepare the actors to know what sought of negotiating tactics would be used by North Korea to avoid an agreement that facilitates denuclearization.
In April 2018, I argued that “Trump and South Korea should realize that based on history, Kim Jong-un will lie about his nuclear program while he continues building and developing ballistic missiles. Moreover, he would demand concessions from the United States, yet he will not offer any. These tactics were successfully used by North Korea leading to the Agreed Framework (which eventually broke down) to the Six-Party Talks, which collapsed following an impasse over granting international inspectors permission to visit nuclear sites in North Korea.” As the rumors of a possible second Trump-Kim Summit are circling around, my argument remains the same. However, If Mr. Trump does not disengage from ‘reality TV’ diplomacy the second summit with Kim Jong-un will be a failure and prospects of achieving the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would remain distant.