By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas
United States President Donald Trump has assigned his wunderkind son-in-law Jared Kushner no end of momentous tasks. Proclaimed shortly after the election as the man who could bring peace to Israel and Palestine, Kushner was subsequently tapped to mend fences with Mexico and Canada. Last week he was appointed to lead a White House SWAT team to overhaul the federal bureaucracy. This week it emerged that he was Trump’s go-between with China, personally arranging with China’s ambassador President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to Mar-a-Lago. Most recently, he flew to Iraq to get a first-hand assessment of the battle against the Islamic State.
Where Kushner is needed next, is with North Korea. Seriously. Making him a presidential envoy to meet with recalcitrant leader Kim Jong-un could be a rare diplomatic game changer. And who better to engage with a family kleptocracy? Kim surely would appreciate the symbolism.
When Trump told the Financial Times that if China does not increase pressure on North Korea, the US will tackle North Korea alone, he probably did not have in mind such a diplomatic gambit. Indeed, the White House policy review of North Korea appears not to have included any kind of engagement strategy. Instead, the ‘new approach’ is heavily weighted toward pressure, in the form of secondary sanctions, covert actions and beefed-up military defences.
Those muscular steps are all necessary, and they are all ones that Obama was pursuing. There is little new to be had in any North Korea policy review. A military pre-emptive strike is not on the cards, even though officials are prone to wink at it by saying ‘all options are on the table’. Every new administration quickly realises that military strikes are not a viable option, given the devastating war that would ensue when North Korea retaliates against South Korea and Japan.
‘All options on the table’ does not mean ‘all’ if it excludes diplomacy. Not that engagement strategies with North Korea have a great track record. Obama’s 2012 ‘Leap Day’ deal lasted fewer than three weeks before Kim Jong-un announced plans for a satellite rocket launch that violated the oral terms of the agreement. Subsequent State Department efforts under John Kerry for informal dialogue got nowhere. The Six Party Talks under George W. Bush produced a landmark agreement in 2005 for denuclearisation coupled with diplomatic recognition and a peace treaty, but North Korea soon violated that deal, testing its first nuclear weapon a year later.
One accord with North Korea that did have real value was Bill Clinton’s Agreed Framework to stop the plutonium weapons programme. Although North Korea violated that agreement too, by a embarking a few years later on an alternative path to nuclear weapons via highly enriched uranium. While the accord lasted, however, North Korea’s weapons production capability was significantly eroded.
Prospects look poor that any engagement offer would fare better than the Leap Day deal. North Korea’s accelerated pace of missile and nuclear testing indicates a driving intent to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Once he has that, Kim might be more inclined to pause and accept limits.
As daunting as the prospects may be, Trump nevertheless needs to add an engagement plank to his pressure policy. If for nothing else, there are three tactical reasons for trying. Firstly, if China is to ramp up its own pressure on North Korea, it will insist on a parallel diplomatic track. Secondly, South Korea’s presidential election on 9 May to replace the disgraced Park Geun-hye is likely to produce a leftist leader inclined himself to engage with North Korea. Failing to join a diplomatic pursuit would put the US out of alignment with the two most important partners. Thirdly, sanctions are not an end in themselves. As in the Iran case, the purpose is to persuade North Korea to come to the negotiating table. If the door to talks is closed, a North Korea backed into a corner will have no recourse other than to come out fighting.
And who knows what Kim thinks? It boggles the mind that the only American to have talked with him at length is offbeat former basketball star Dennis Rodman. Kim has not wanted to meet with other foreign visitors – not Director of National Intelligence James Clapper nor Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, nor even Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj.
It is at least conceivable that Kim would be more attracted by an offer to meet with Kushner, after the necessary groundwork was undertaken. North Koreans place utmost importance on family lineage. And while far from being birds of a feather, the two men are of similar age (Kim is 33 and Kushner, 36; they celebrated their birthdays two days apart in early January), and experienced similar rocket-like ascensions to political power.
On the campaign trail last year, Trump said he would be willing to meet with Kim, to try to hash out a deal over hamburgers. No such meeting is remotely possible, or advisable, unless prospects for success were teed up by lower-level discussions of the kind that Henry Kissinger had with Zhou En-lai in preparing Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. Most recently, Kissinger was reportedly behind Kushner’s engagement with the Chinese. Let Kushner play the Kissinger role with North Korea.