Johannesburg - North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is well aware of President Donald Trump’s strategy and tactics when it comes to his thinking around “the Art of the Deal.”
Trump long gave away his theory of deal-making: To start off by forcefully setting the bar high and be prepared to walk away, make the other side believe they have no other alternative but to compromise and accept the bottom lines, then return to negotiations from a position of strength and force a compromise on your terms.
Understanding Trump’s style of deal making and his excessive self-confidence as “the great deal maker", it was predictable what would happen at the Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi. The Singapore Summit had been a grand performance to show that Trump had gone where no other US president had gone before on North Korea, and that his innovative thinking was a winning formula.
The Hanoi Summit was to implement his theory of deal-making which was to lay the US position on the table, leaving the perception that there was little, if any, room for compromise. So Trump laid his cards on the table: the US expected full de-nuclearisation, and no incremental de-nuclearisation would be sufficient to lift US sanctions.
When Kim Jong-Un put forward his position - which was to dismantle North Korea’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon in return for the lifting of economic sanctions - Trump simply walked away. (Walked away with a confident smile and no visible animosity). It is a strategy he pursued in countless high flying business deals in his past life.
Trump has already expressed his willingness to participate in another Summit, and it will be then that the US will force some kind of compromise. Either at the third Summit or one thereafter Trump will ensure that he is able to hail the success of a grand deal that prioritises US national interests. He needs that success for domestic political purposes in order to prove he is the ultimate international deal maker, unlike any other. There is no room for failure on North Korea – too much has been invested in the process for Trump to lose face.
Those around Trump who opposed a grand deal with North Korea have already been done away with. Trump long ago removed his North Korea advisers. Trump will make a deal in keeping with his “America First” policy, which may ultimately accept North Korea retaining some nuclear weapons as long as they get rid of their long range ballistic missiles which could target American cities. When Trump’s Defence Secretary John Matthis opposed such an approach as it did not respect the concerns of America’s allies such as Japan and South Korea, it was one of the reasons Matthis fell out of favour.
While Trump may personally have been prepared to withdraw US troops from South Korea as a means to cut military expenditure, the US establishment is likely to make a strong case for retaining such troops in order to keep tabs on China, in keeping with the US policy of the encirclement of China.
Kim Jong-Un’s top priority in this great political chess game is to ensure the survival of the Kim regime. Under the suffocating sanctions regime North Korea is finding it increasingly hard to feed its people, and if that situation continues, it could lead to the demise of the family dynasty. Key to the regime’s long term survival is therefore to enable economic development, modernisation, and attract outside investment, and that necessitates the lifting of US economic sanctions.
Kim has likely already decided to denuclearise in return for international recognition and the complete lifting of the sanctions regime. There is also the fact that North Korea’s nuclear tests destroyed some of their nuclear sites which would need to be rebuilt, and its main nuclear facility is said to have been badly affected by radiation. Such a rebuilding effort will be costly, which North Korea can ill afford.
China would be supportive of the de-nuclearisation of North Korea as some of the nuclear sites are just 100km from the Chinese border, which puts China at risk of contamination from radiation. China is no longer prepared to tolerate the continuation of North Korean nuclear tests, and its imposition of strict sanctions after the last major tests was a strong signal to the North Korean regime.
The stage is thus set for the deal of the century, and this just might be Trump and Kim’s great moment to make history.