The Real Summit

Column: It took place in Beijing

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese President Xi Jinping / Getty Images
June 15, 2018

The Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un had drama, imagery, pomp and circumstance, even a Hollywood-style promotional video. There were promises of denuclearization and hopes for a new relationship between the United States and North Korea. What was missing, however, were the specific details and concrete actions necessary to achieve such lofty goals. That work began at a less remarked on, but perhaps more important, meeting in Beijing two days later. Between Mike Pompeo and Xi Jinping.

Singapore was nonetheless a revolution in U.S. relations with Kim's tyranny. Since the end of the Cold War, our North Korea policy has followed a template: America leveraged its power to isolate the Hermit Kingdom and force it into negotiations where it made specific pledges to denuclearize in exchange for cash. It lied every time. The cash arrived; the nukes multiplied.

Trump altered the formula. Vowing "fire and fury" and implementing drastic sanctions, he reestablished a military deterrent that had eroded during the Obama years. Instead of following his predecessors along the circuitous route of multilateral negotiations, however, he went for bilateral, personal diplomacy to coax Kim out of isolation. Then, rather than having the North Koreans commit to precise actions, he settled for vague aspirations that, by their nature, are harder to break. And he did so without lifting a single sanction.

Yes, he agreed to suspend joint military exercises with democratic South Korea as a confidence-building measure. I'm leery of the move, especially since the north has yet to undertake a confidence-building measure of its own. But does anyone doubt that the mercurial Trump won't restart the maneuvers at the first sign of North Korean intransigence? This is the same president, after all, who called his new friend "little rocket man" at the U.N. last year and who backed out of the Singapore confab just weeks before it ended up taking place.

Trump has gone from threat-making Dirty Harry to an upselling Billy Mays. A few months ago he was drawing up plans to bomb North Korea back to the Stone Age. Now he's developing condos along the Wonsan beach. Carried aloft on gusts of optimistic rhetoric, he's declared the threat over on Twitter and tells us all to "sleep well tonight!" Trump is unpredictable, impulsive, over the top. He can't be controlled.

The men and women who implement policy can't afford such flights of imagination. They have to deal with the objective facts of the situation. Retired admiral Harry Harris, the former Pacific commander nominated for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, told Congress, "I think we must continue to worry about the nuclear threat." And at a press conference in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart, Mike Pompeo said, "We have made very clear that the sanctions and the economic relief that North Korea will receive will only happen after the full denuclearization, the complete denuclearization, of North Korea."

Which is why Pompeo's meetings in Beijing are decisive. Not only would North Korea's nuclear program cease to exist without Chinese support. North Korea would disappear too. Some 90 percent of North Korea's foreign trade is with China. And it was most likely China's reluctant imposition of tough U.N. sanctions last spring that grabbed Kim's attention. Now, with Singapore behind us, China is ready to ease the pressure. That cannot happen if denuclearization is to succeed.

Pompeo understands that in the midst of good feeling there is a tendency to look away from bad behavior, to excuse or rationalize autocratic probing for weakness and irresolution. Democracies often sacrifice both their principles and their interests in order to perpetuate abstract, meaningless, consequence-free diplomatic processes. If the Trump administration is to produce a different outcome than the Clinton, Bush, or Obama administrations, it must relax its posture only when North Korea provides tangible reasons to do so.

So you go to Beijing. Why? Because North Korea is but a part of a much larger puzzle: China's rise to great power status.

Some might argue for going easy on Kim in order to free up resources to deal with China's military, cultural, political, and economic challenge to American power. This gets it backward. Want to see results in North Korea? Resist Chinese hegemony. By opening up the space for strategic decision-making and pressuring China at several points at once, you make it more likely Xi Jinping will exert influence over his vassal. Just so we back off.

Indeed, China is worried that North Korea may cut its own deal with the United States and, like Vietnam and Laos, become a one-party state that nevertheless balances against the Middle Kingdom.

Let's increase Xi's blood pressure a little. There are plenty of options. For starters, kill the defense sequester. In addition to conducting freedom of navigation operations, penalize China for militarizing islands in the South China Sea. Levy tariffs. Sell the F-35 to Taiwan. Warn the region that, if negotiations with Kim fail, America may be forced to reintroduce the tactical nuclear missiles that were removed from the Korean peninsula in 1991.

Will China protest, and U.S. doves cry? Of course they will. But remember they did exactly the same thing last year—until maximum pressure forced China to act. And North Korea sang a different tune.