Recent dramatic news concerning an impending summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un stimulates starkly varying reactions. First, a breakthrough in the decades-long logjam along the 38th Parallel dividing North from South could prove to be welcome news for both the region and the world.
The growing nuclear threat over recent years has frustrated diplomatic efforts of several U.S. administrations and heightened tensions among allies such as South Korea and Japan. A somewhat opaque combination of efforts on the part of Mr. Moon, the newly elected president of South Korea, and the seemingly erratic and bombastic pronouncements of the Trump Administration appears to have precipitated the movements we are seeing.
Second, however, even before the “hypothetical” Singapore summit, now scheduled for June 13th, we must ask the question: What happens next? Even if Trump’s tweeted threats and insults had a role in creating the breakthrough, it is critical to understand both what will be promised at the conference, and more importantly the longer term strategy of the Administration.
Some hints emerged this week from Mike Pompeo, the newly-confirmed Secretary of State, appearing (triumphantly) on weekend talk shows. Secretary Pompeo recently returned from North Korea, presumably after establishing parameters for the upcoming Singapore summit. Voluntarily, he asserted that U.S. taxpayers would not want to see any foreign aid money spent on North Korea – a questionable premise to begin with. Wouldn’t it depend on how it is spent, and the strategy within which the aid occurs, not to mention the potential role of South Korea?
When pressed as to just what the U.S. might be offering North Korea in any possible agreement, Pompeo answered with immediate certainty: American entrepreneurship and business acumen.
Whoops! This begins to sound very much like post-war plans for making Iraq a free market bastion of economic power. This was the original Neoconservative pipe dream of the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Dubya himself was little more than an empty suit observing from the sidelines as that disastrous and unrealistic policy has destabilized this volatile region for over 15 years and counting.
The culture of the Islamic Middle East was in no way ready to smoothly convert to a market-based capitalistic system. Even Russia, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, could not convert effectively, despite the crowing of American conservatives that “Capitalism has triumphed over Socialism.” Before the fall, only the Mafia in the Soviet Union understood much about markets, thus it is no surprise that they took over. The continued dominance of Russian economic autocrats characterizes their system to this day.
The stakes in Korea could prove just as high. Does the Trump Administration really think North Korea is ready to forego all nuclear ambitions, step smoothly into the community of nations and happily begin focusing on maximizing profits like everyone else? If so, our view is that this represents a particularly naive and dangerous brand of Neoconservatism.
A final hint at Administration thinking, consistent with Pompeo’s comments, is offered by a recent Trump statement that: “This deal will make North Korea very rich.” We all know by now that you cannot believe everything Donald Trump says. But when he refers to getting rich, he’s probably serious.
In short, stay tuned on North Korean issues – whether or not the summit actually happens – and expect turbulent surprises. And we haven’t even mentioned China…