If the upcoming summit between US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un fails to move the conversation closer to a peaceful resolution, it could result in a return to the belligerence of a few months ago, according to John McHugh, an Atlantic Council board director and former secretary of the US Army.
“The fact that we have the opportunity to change direction here and go in a more peaceful one and having it occur so quickly is good news,” said McHugh. “But the lesson there is that we could very rapidly, if the upcoming summit is a failure, return to that [earlier] posture, which was an extraordinarily dangerous one.”
In a departure from his promise last summer to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea as it provocatively conducted ballistic missile and nuclear tests, Trump has more recently agreed to meet Kim—the first ever such meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader—whom he described as an “honorable” man. The North Korean leader has similarly performed a brisk pivot from threats to target missiles at the United States to diplomacy.
McHugh said the changed scenario was remarkable for its swiftness.
“It was not so many weeks ago when many analysts thought that the bloody nose strategy that had been touted by many important people in the Trump administration—in other words, some sort of military action against North Korea—was not only possible, but some feared probable,” he said.
The highlight, so far, of Kim’s diplomatic volte-face came on April 27 when he walked across the border into South Korea for talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. This was the first time that a North Korean leader has set foot in the South since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953.
Kim and Trump are now preparing for a historic summit of their own. A time and a place for the that summit have not yet been decided, but it is expected that the meeting will take place in May or early June.
Kim and Moon pledged to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and work to formally end the Korean War this year.
Trump should prioritize verification of North Korea’s stated commitment to denuclearization, said McHugh.
“The verification component of this hoped-for agreement [on denuclearization] will be absolutely critical,” he said.
Trump has said that past US administrations were “played like a fiddle” by the North Koreans as agreements crumbled soon after they were painstakingly put together.
“The fault in the past has largely been too much faith in the North Koreans following what they had agreed to,” said McHugh.
“As the new [US] National Security Advisor John Bolton has said, and [US] Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo has also indicated, the efforts of the Trump administration that they describe as ‘maximum pressure’ will continue until there is verifiable adherence by the North Koreans to whatever they are able to agree upon,” he said. “If they are able to achieve that, that will be a significant change and we would hope, take us down a better path.”
McHugh is a Washington-based government affairs counsellor in the law firm K&L Gates. He served as secretary of the US Army from 2009 until 2015. Prior to becoming secretary, he was a Republican member of the US House of Representatives representing New York. He served on the House Armed Services Committee, the House International Relations Committee, and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
McHugh spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.
Q: What should be the Trump administration’s priorities as it prepares for the Trump-Kim summit?
McHugh: The objective has been denuclearization of North Korea, one that is fully verifiable. We have had past declarations of intentions to do so—agreements signed that the North Koreans would take steps in that direction—but they have not been fulfilled. The verification component of this hoped-for agreement will be absolutely critical.
Q: Trump has talked about the United States being “played like a fiddle” by North Korea in the past. Do you agree? And what can the Trump administration do to ensure that this is no longer the case?
McHugh: I wouldn’t use that phrasing certainly, but there is no question that there has been a pattern of repetition here. There have been any number of agreements that we had hoped would take us to a more positive outcome.
The fault in the past has largely been too much faith in the North Koreans following what they had agreed to. They got, in many instances, exactly what they wanted. That is more time to find a different path [and] an easing of sanctions that may have been in place at the time.
As the new [US] National Security Advisor John Bolton has said, and [US] Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo has also indicated, the efforts of the Trump administration that they describe as “maximum pressure” will continue until there is verifiable adherence by the North Koreans to whatever they are able to agree upon. If they are able to achieve that, that will be a significant change and, we would hope, take us down a better path.
Q: North Korea has promised to shut down its main nuclear weapons test site at Punggye-ri by the end of May. Is that significant given that the site is believed to be largely degraded as a result of frequent testing? What impact do you expect it to have on Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs?
McHugh: We have seen this play in the past. Back in 2008, they destroyed a cooling tower at Yongbyon. Unbeknownst [to the United States] at the time, they were recreating facilities to continue their production of fissile materials.
There is an ongoing debate among the experts in the field about whether there is in fact tired mountain syndrome at the current facility [at Punggye-ri]. If so, this would be nothing more than theater because it would not necessarily indicate a termination of [North Korea’s] program.
But I do think if you take it in the context of everything else that has occurred—the meeting of the North and South Korean leaders, the first in many, many decades; the pending visit of President Trump to a site yet to be determined to talk to the North Korean leader—if in fact the destruction of the facility occurs and you can verify that it has happened, it is part of a step in the right direction. You will have to take it in a larger context as things unfold.
Q: What type of concessions could the United States give to North Korea in return for verifiable denuclearization?
McHugh: Guarantees of security are key to Kim Jong-un. Clearly the rationalization and justification of the North’s nuclear program has always been to ensure that North Korea could continue to secure its sovereignty. It seems to me that some sort of tradeoff on guarantees of security would be absolutely critical from Kim Jong-un’s perspective.
There are obviously issues of sanctions that could be worked out in some way based upon verifiable progress by the North. Clearly there are events that brought Kim Jong-un to this decision [to go down the path of diplomacy]. Sanctions could be reasonably counted as among them. I would think the security of the regime in the North would be somewhat dependent upon economic relief as well.
Q: Has the PR success of the Kim-Moon summit made it harder for Trump to return to a “fire and fury” position on North Korea if the Kim-Trump summit does not go as well?
McHugh: President Trump has demonstrated in what he describes as his approach to foreign policy that the rulebook is no longer applicable. While the meeting of the two leaders on the Korean Peninsula was heavy in symbolism—and was important if for no other reason in that it occurred—I don’t think at least in Trump’s mind that takes any cards off the table so far as his options going down the road.
What interested me most was that some of the things Kim Jong-un spoke about could have been held back as concessions during a meeting with President Trump. He put those upfront. That is somewhat different from how we have seen these meetings progress in the past. It would be interesting to see what, if anything, Kim Jong-un is holding back to potentially put on the table when he meets with President Trump.
Q: What were some of these things that Kim could have held back?
McHugh: They were vague in their context, but a dedication to full denuclearization, talk about demonstrating themselves as a responsible party on certainly the regional if not the international stage. He just said some things that weren’t particularly necessary to unveil at the meeting with President Moon Jae-in. The fact that the meeting occurred and symbolic things like changing the clock back to Tokyo time were offered at the North-South summit were fine. [Kim] could have reserved the issue of denuclearization and destruction of his nuclear production facilities to put on the table with President Trump but chose not to.
Q: The stakes for the Trump-Kim summit are high. What are the consequences of failure?
McHugh: I fear that we would immediately return to the “fire and fury” dialogue that we have heard before.
The thing that is remarkable to me about this particular moment is how quickly it has changed. It was not so many weeks ago when many analysts thought that the bloody nose strategy that had been touted by many important people in the Trump administration—in other words, some sort of military action against North Korea—was not only possible, but some feared probable. The fact that we have the opportunity to change direction here and go in a more peaceful one and having it occur so quickly is good news. But the lesson there is that we could very rapidly, if the upcoming summit is a failure, return to that posture, which was an extraordinarily dangerous one.
Q: Will warmer bilateral ties between the Koreas in the absence of a breakthrough between North Korea and the United States raise the risk of an erosion of sanctions on North Korea?
McHugh: I don’t think just warming will do that in the near term. If the North is able through the continued actions of Kim Jong-un able to demonstrate stability and that it is not a threat to international and regional security, that always weakens sanctions in and of themselves.
The United States has had the lead on the sanctions. The fact that from the president on down they have made it very clear that the sanctions will stay in place until there is some kind of resolution of the bigger issues that we expect Kim Jong-un and President Trump to discuss, that would keep those sanctions pretty solid, at least in the short term.
Q: Do you expect China to keep up the pressure on North Korea in the event of better inter-Korean ties?
McHugh: China has played an interesting hand here. There are reports that the sanctions that they have subscribed to publicly have already begun to erode from their perspective. They are, from their side, in a very challenging situation. I don’t think they have any interest in seeing North Korea with a nuclear capability, but they are similarly disinterested in a North-South reconciliation that would in all likelihood bring a US ally to its borders.
They are trying to play a very clever and a very delicate game. I don’t think that they will make any publicly declared big changes in their adherence to sanctions, at least until sometime after the Kim-Trump summit. They will continue to watch it very carefully and dial it very carefully one way or the other as they see fit.
Q: The Trump-Kim summit will follow Trump’s decision on the Iran nuclear deal. What impact would the United States potentially leaving that agreement have on negotiations with North Korea?
McHugh: Reportedly, it will not have any, but I think logically it has to be a matter of question from the North as to America’s willingness to keep the commitments it made. Similarly, after [Libyan leader] Moammar Gadhafi’s denuclearization and the pledges that went with that, a number of years later he is deposed an executed. That has to be in Kim Jong-un’s mind.
But given that the dialogue [between Trump and Kim] will be directly from leader to leader, I think that takes a little bit different tack to it. Hopefully [leaving the Iran deal] will not have a negative effect. We will just have to wait and see.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.