N. Korea, the U.S. and the Strange Path to Singapore

By Admiral James 'Sandy' Winnefeld

Admiral Winnefeld served for 37 years in the United States Navy. He retired in 2015 after serving four years as the ninth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the United States' number two ranking military officer. As a flag officer, he commanded the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, NATO Joint Command Lisbon, Striking and Support Forces NATO, the United States Sixth Fleet, United States Northern Command, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, also known as NORAD.  Admiral Winnefeld is a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology.


One wonders what the alien creature Griffin, portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg in Men in Black III, and capable of seeing all possible futures, would see in the range of outcomes for the upcoming meeting between two other interesting beings who are the leaders of North Korea and the United States.  Sadly, we are not privy to his visions, so our anxious world is left to contemplate them on its own.

What a long strange trip it’s been.  The latest member of the North Korean dynasty, prolonging the family business of manipulation and murder to ensure survival, finally achieved—at least in his own mind—what his predecessors long coveted: a formidable deterrent to external threats.  Does he now sincerely wish to exchange that painstakingly gained lever for a peace agreement that will mitigate external threats in a different way, while also smothering any incipient internal threats through the economic security that was mortgaged to obtain the deterrent in the first place?

Meanwhile, has a bullying, anchor-negotiating president, who pushed harder than any of his predecessors through military and economic pressure, finally accomplished—at least in his own mind—what has eluded every other administration: bringing the recalcitrant hermit kingdom groveling to the negotiating table?

And therein lies both the problem and the potential.  The problem is that both men appear to have been talking past each other.  With apologies to a host of writers who have used the analogy (including most recently John Lewis Gaddis), both men are hedgehogs focused on one thing rather than foxes that consider many.

One, who awakens every day distracted by many things not North Korea, yet is desperate for clear-cut political victory and the accolades that will surely follow, brusquely demands submission in the form of rapid, complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.  The other, who awakens every day halfway across the globe, fully focused on regime survival, is acutely aware of the consequences of that concession by other leaders who are now in their graves, and remains frustrated that the strength of his position lies unacknowledged.

The danger is that hedgehogs can double down when things are not going well.  Worse, each leader has subordinates who, through poorly considered words that were either rookie mistakes or intentional acts of sabotage, nearly blew up these two nations’ bizarre trajectory towards a summit.  But their errors actually revealed their leaders’ true eagerness for an agreement: the negotiation was quickly placed back on track through conciliatory language and hastily arranged meetings.

And thus the potential . . .

The whole thing is reminiscent of why North and South Korea’s leaders came to an agreement in the first place on the former’s participation in the Olympic games this past winter.  Kim Jong Un wanted to both avoid the humiliation of an Olympic spectacle occurring right across his border and, by enjoying the legitimacy conferred by the Olympics, convince the international community of his gravitas.  His counterpart, Moon Jae-in, wanted to avoid any complications during the games, as well as foreclosing other nations’ reluctance to participate in a signature event for his country out of fear of their athletes’ safety.

Thus, each leader desperately wanted the same thing for different reasons . . . and whenever that happens, an agreement may not be far away.  The same is true today, and lies at the root of Griffin’s most optimistic possible future for 12 June, which is when, after all the nasty rhetoric and other bumps in the road, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un will finally sit down together in Singapore.

Unless they don’t—there is still time for this to fall apart if mismanaged.   And it isn’t as simple as the Olympics.  The best future from Singapore will be the broad outlines of an agreement.  The journey will be long, highly complex, and laden with petulant rhetoric and frustrating setbacks . . . and the same subordinates who nearly derailed it will be responsible for negotiating the extensive and tricky details of a solution.

The only way it will work is if President Trump can declare some kind of political victory while also giving his young counterpart the denuclearization sequencing—and “face”—he needs to feel confident enough to proceed.  And it also only works if that sequencing involves “reversible for reversible and irreversible for irreversible” measures.

The former could involve trades like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea freezing all nuclear and missile testing in exchange for the U.S. and The Republic of Korea scaling back military exercises and other reversible actions.  The latter must involve verifiable dismantlement of weapons and weapons production infrastructure in exchange for real sanctions relief and economic growth in a series of graduated steps.

Trust will have to be built along the way—and there is no evidence whatsoever that the North Koreans are to be trusted.  Indeed, their recent dismantlement of a nuclear test site was clearly designed to make a virtue of necessity.  Kim will be well prepared and patient, hoping to capitalize on the natural American tendencies to want to trust a counterpart and to negotiate with oneself.  Nervous regional allies will have to be considered (particularly Japan), with other allies watching closely.  Hovering over the entire process will be the implicit, seeping presence of China, who will undoubtedly have given its “advice” to Kim.  And other nations like Russia and—strangely—Syria, anxious not to be left out of this spectacle, will further complicate the process.

Because of all this fragile complexity, our friend Griffin would also be nervously contemplating other, far less palatable futures.  One is that the U.S. falls into the Charlie Brown trap . . . in which history repeats itself and the U.S. is outmaneuvered by the North Korean regime by naively trading irreversibles for reversibles.  Let us hope that, in another alternative future in which the negotiations fall apart (perhaps by the president overplaying his negotiating style), they do so gracefully, with a return to the status quo rather than an angry breakup leading to a catastrophic conflagration on the Peninsula.

After all, the North Koreans—for all their deceit, comically twisted rhetoric, and ability to commit unconscionable acts—are rational enough to avoid their own suicide by using nuclear weapons.  That is, unless someone foolishly backs them into a survivability corner.  Therein lies President Trump’s greatest danger but also his strongest negotiation position, even if he under-appreciates it: if the North doesn’t cooperate, they can simply be sent back to stew in their own juice.  That may well be the most likely outcome.

Let us all hope for the best.