Analysis

US President Donald J. Trump’s stunning decision to reverse Treasury sanctions on North Korea because he “likes” Kim Jong-un sends a troubling message to the United States’ friends and foes.

“Hard to believe, but the president is undercutting his own policy of maximum pressure/maximum diplomacy, which was arguable sound, in favor, it seems, of an obsequious gesture,” said Daniel Fried, a distinguished senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center who as the State Department’s coordinator for sanctions policy crafted US sanctions against Russia, the largest US sanctions program to date, and negotiated the imposition of similar sanctions by Europe, Canada, Japan, and Australia. 

The presence of US troops and military equipment in Europe is important, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford said on March 21, as Moscow would “be much happier if there was not a physical manifestation of our commitment to NATO because their message that we are not willing to meet our alliance [commitments] would be much easier to sell.”

When the foreign ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary finally signed documents completing their nations’ accession to NATO it marked the beginning of a new era for the transatlantic alliance. Twenty years ago, the ceremony held in Independence, Missouri—the hometown of US President Harry S. Truman, who oversaw the creation of NATO—marked the first time former-Communist adversaries had joined the alliance of democracies.

Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, was a junior desk officer at the US Department of State when then US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright travelled to Missouri to finalize the new enlargement. “For me, less than a year on the job, I was on a professional high,” Wilson recalled. “After watching Washington for years exude ambivalence about whether to welcome more allies into NATO, the compelling case presented by these nations’ extraordinary spokespeople won the day. The determination of Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles, and the subsequent bipartisan leadership of Robert Dole and Bill Clinton, ensured that President George H.W. Bush’s call for a ‘Europe whole and free’ would not remain just rhetoric.”

As Washington and Pyongyang pick up the pieces following the abruptly concluded summit between US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi last month, the two sides have an opportunity to reassess their positions. Some former officials believe that there is, in fact, reason to be hopeful.

Kim “needs a different kind of future for [North Korea] and his regime, and he’s prepared to take some risks to do it,” said Kathleen Stephens, a former US ambassador to South Korea.

On March 4, 2018, a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, were found critically ill on a park bench in Salisbury, England. It was later determined that they had been poisoned by Novichok, a deadly nerve agent. The attack was linked to the Russian state.


One year later, “Russia shows no sign of rethinking its confrontational policy toward the West,” said Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and  Security who served as the US ambassador to Russia from 2001 to 2005.

It’s disappointing that a deal was not reached in Hanoi, but it’s good that US President Donald J. Trump walked away rather than signing a one-sided agreement.  Agreeing to a total lifting of UN sanctions in return for only limited steps on denuclearization—closure of the Yongbyon facility— would have done nothing to reduce the North Koreans’ nuclear weapons and infrastructure, making the task of real denuclearization even harder.

Dismantlement of the Yongbyon facility, the main production site for the North’s plutonium and enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, would be an important achievement, but it would not shut off the North’s fissile material production completely.  The North has other facilities, some clandestine, in addition to Yongbyon, as Trump pointed out.  Moreover, dismantling Yongbyon would have left untouched the North’s existing stockpile of fissile material, warheads, ballistic missiles, and their associated production facilities—all of which continue to pose a real and growing threat to the United States, its allies, and the entire Northeast Asia region. 

In congressional testimony, Atlantic Council’s Alexander Vershbow says US allies concerned ‘we  may have given a gift to President Putin’

Although the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from a Cold War era nuclear arms control treaty with Russia was “legally justified,” the decision could “give Russia free rein to rapidly deploy ground-launched versions of its newest cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons,” Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, warned Congress on February 26.

Vershbow, who is a former NATO deputy secretary general, testified to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces that Washington’s “allies are concerned that, politically, we may have given a gift to [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin, who has long sought to escape the INF Treaty’s limitations.”

US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will hold their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27 and 28.


The two leaders last met in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Following that meeting—the first engagement between a sitting US president and the leader of North Korea—Trump declared that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.” However, there is little evidence that Kim is preparing to eliminate his nuclear weapons.

US President Donald J. Trump made a bit of news in his State of the Union address on February 5 when he announced that he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam on February 27 and 28.

The choice of Vietnam is a significant one.

“Vietnam was chosen at least in part because it is a country that has friendly relations with North Korea,” said Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former US ambassador to South Korea.

Decision could spark "unpredictable and unconstrained US-Russian arms race," Atlantic Council's Alexander Vershbow says.

The US decision to suspend participation in a decades-old nuclear arms control treaty with Russia has raised the probability of a US-Russian arms race, according to Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former US ambassador to Russia.

“Although the US withdrawal will not take effect for another six months, today marks the effective end of the INF Treaty, the only nuclear arms agreement to ban an entire class of missiles,” Vershbow said. “The loss of the treaty creates a real possibility of an unpredictable and unconstrained US-Russian arms race in Europe and, potentially, in Northeast Asia as well.”



    

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